Poor Race. Race Matthews that is. They called him the ‘Minister for Plod’, ‘…a tiresome old bag of swamp gas’ and a ‘…pompous fathead’ – they being a group calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT). Race, being a pollie, had a thick skin and had possibly been called much worse – and we are, all these years on, still no closer to knowing who those rude guys were. But they managed to perpetrate one of the most audacious of art heists in our history – and on Race’s watch. This event Gabrielle Williams has woven very deftly into her latest novel for the savvy YA crowd, ‘The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex’
Mr Matthews was Minister for the Arts in the Sate Government, back in 1986, when a Picasso, ‘The Weeping Woman’, mysteriously disappeared from the National Gallery of Victoria. The thieves left a calling card on the wall in its lieu, imposed with the acronym – ACT. For some time the staff at the gallery assumed the prize painting had been taken to the Australian Capital Territory for some form of restoration – then the reality dawned on them. Whilst it was missing, all sorts of rumour mongering and innuendo went on as to what had happened the valuable stolen item. Eventually it, equally mysteriously, turned up in a railway concourse locker. The canvas had been expertly wrapped and was in good health. Therefore it was surmised it was no amateur job – maybe even an inside job, given the specialist tools required to remove the painting from its location and then to release it undamaged from its frame.
Ms Williams, on given the task of describing herself as a writer, in a few words, for an on-line forum operated by teen readers, offered up that she is ‘…original, quirky, interesting, different, unique, funny, pacey, literary and relatable.’ After reading ‘Guy/Girl/Artist/Ex’, I would concur. It was certainly an original approach to append a range of diverse, innocent characters around those fictionally doing the stealing of the great man’s work. A quirky guy, Guy, is the hero of the piece – someone who initially spends most of his time figuring out ways to prevent his olds from discovering how entirely slack he was being at school, but later becoming far less shallow. The novel is truly interesting in its recreation of the eighties and it is certainly different, having a bunch of characters of Latin American origin as major participants in the goings-on. I could continue, but you get the gist that I like this novel. It also possesses a structure that must have been no mean feat to figure out in the author’s head. As well, the tale hit all the right notes for her audience with the coming together of the Guy and Girl. Their intimate scene is handled with just the right amount of tact. For its readers, it gives out positive messages in the escape of Ex from Artist – he being an out-and-out drop-kick, the type of boyfriend to be avoided at all costs. The author has alluded to the fact that Ex is her most autobiographical creation. The parallels include the fact she is also single mum who has been involved, in her time, with several plonkers decidedly lacking in sensitivity. Ex also shares Ms William’s tastes in music and fashion.
The book, in part, is based around the premise that the Spanish for ‘weeping woman’ is ‘llorona’ – that and a couple of admittedly unlikely coincidences. In the hands of a less skilled wordsmith I would find the latter detracting from my pleasure in the product, but not so much here. I have no doubt the age-group this novel would appeal most would accept these occurrences in their stride – and that is not intended to be disparaging in any way. I particularly enjoyed Raffi as a protagonist – a new arrival in Oz from Columbia, thus part of the Spanish connection. Gabrielle W reports she is working on a sequel to this terrific yarn. Hopefully in it Rafi and Guy will continue their adventures as a team – and perhaps more.
This promising writer first came to the attention of lovers of YA with her well-gonged ‘Beatle meets Destiny’. She has been praised by critic Graeme Wood of the Age as ‘…one of the funniest young adult fiction authors around.’ For me, I trust she goes around many more times in the future, giving us more unique takes on young people on the verge of adulthood.