Review: Chris Womersley – Cairo

9781848663916It’s funny how writers can creep up on you. If you’d asked me to compile a list of my ‘must read’ authors, I doubt I’d have thought of Chris Womersley. And yet the minute I received his latest book to appear in the UK, Cairo, I couldn’t wait to read it. Womersley’s Bereft was one of my favourite books of 2012 and a wonderful exploration of the effects of a miscarriage of justice on a man. His The Low Road was a little bleak for my tastes but still a compelling read. Now, in a book that shows Womersley’s versatility as a writer, we get a different insight into Australian life: the world of bohemian Melbourne in the 1980s.

Tom’s aunt dies and he persuades his parents that he is ideally suited to take over the occupancy of her old apartment while attending Melbourne University. But in his first few weeks as tenant in the Cairo apartment block, he encounters the bohemian Max Cheever and his beautiful wife, Sally. He is sucked into their plans to steal a renowned picture in the city’s art gallery. However as the boundaries between what is real and fake begin to blur, Tom realises he may be part of a grander scheme of deception.

Womersely’s writing is exquisite to read. There’s a poetic quality to the prose that allows you to enter the world of smoke and mirrors created by the central characters. There’s also a timelessness about the writing which means that the action is sometimes hard to place. Womersely mitigates this by referring to seminal events and personalities from the 1980s, for example the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. I found this jarred sometimes – did I really want to read about Madonna in this small world that the writer had created?

It only just makes it into the category of crime novel – a killing happens towards the end of the book although there is a strong sense of impending catastrophe throughout the novel. Womersely is adept in layering his writing with various deceptions and it is the blurring of fake and real that makes this book such a compelling read. Tom’s naivety is completely believable and the reader is always slightly ahead of the protagonist in judging what might befall him. It reminded me a little of the early twentieth century crime novels that I loved as a teenager. It was a delight to read.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.