The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free advance copy of this from the author for review.
This is one of those impossible reviews because I’d have to get into huge chunks of third act plot to talk about the parts I found the most intriguing so I don’t want to spoil it, but on the other hand I suspect that this is the kind of book where a lot of readers are going to think it’s one thing and be pissed off when it turns out to be another so providing some warning seems to be in order.
It’s a real pickle we got here, folks.
Let’s start with the basic plot which is about an introverted teenage girl named Lee who thinks of herself as being completely invisible and unremarkable except for her talent for shoplifting. Lee’s life is derailed when she’s falsely accused of a crime, and eventually she ends hiding among the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. (That Bruce Springsteen reference was not intentional.) Eventually she finds shelter in an old building dubbed the Crystal Castle run by a strange group of people that Lee soon grows to distrust. When Lee ends up on their bad side she once again finds herself on the run and caught up in a conspiracy centered around the works of French artist Marcel Duchamp.
That description makes it sound like this is just The Da Vinci Code, but that really sells the book short and would be misleading because while this definitely has elements of a conspiracy thriller it’s closer to being serious Lit-A-Chur than a genre book even though it also has some sci-fi elements to it. Plus, it’s not terrible. So it’s probably better to compare it to Night Film which is another book that blends some solid real-world thriller aspects with a general tone of uncertainty that makes you scratch your head a lot while reading because you’re pleasantly baffled.
The writing is deceptively straight-forward. There’s no real lines that blew me away in and off themselves, but where Rose excels is in creating haunting imagery. Whether it’s an abandoned aquarium at night or a rave in an old missile silo with an inflatable clown head by the entrance or a guy in old-timey clothes riding an antique bicycle down the street you really see these things, and they all combine to help create the aura of mystery that hangs over everything. He also does a very good job of breaking down the visual aspects of Duchamp’s work which ties into his philosophy about the observation of art.
Since it isn’t a straight line thriller that’s as concerned with atmosphere as plot there are some points where I found myself wishing that things would move along and that Lee didn’t spend quite as much time on the run and in hiding as she does. There’s one sub-plot in particular that didn’t seem to go much of anywhere other than to provide Lee with one skill that’s critical for her a couple of key points. And in fairness the sense of desperation Lee has is built by these extended periods of her in survival mode.
While I enjoyed this quite a bit I also think it’s going to be a real Love-It or Hate-It book that will be impossible to predict how another person might react to. It’s general WTF tone for much of the book leaves a reader on uncertain footing and that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and the payoff is only going to appeal to some folks, not all. Still, it checked off a lot of boxes for me, and it’s one of the more unique and original things I’ve read in a while despite it’s basic familiarity of starting out as a conspiracy thriller. It’s an intriguing debut novel, and I’ll be looking for more work from Augustus Rose.
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