Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2013

Cairo (2013), by Chris Womersley

CairoCairo is a  most interesting departure for Melbourne author Chris Womersley.  In Bereft (see my review) he fashioned a bewitching novel in Australian Gothic; in Cairo he has fictionalised one of Melbourne’s most notorious art heists.  I predict that the book will show up in any number of shortlists…

The central character, Tom Button – 17 years old in 1986 – is looking back as an older but wiser man, on his Year of Living Dangerously.  As an adolescent, he was a misfit in Dunley, a country town which Womersley has wisely fabricated lest he rouse indignation for its characterisation as a dreary rural dump where ‘a man’s worth is measured by his ability to stake a fence or identify the number of cylinders in a car by sound alone‘ (p. 12).

The author’s character excoriates country life; he rejects his family and the future that seems mapped out for him.  He fears becoming a pothead like the older brother of his mate David, and feels betrayed when David abandons the fantasy of escaping the place and takes up an apprenticeship instead.

The thought of becoming a local baker like ‘Crusty Brown or a real estate agent like my father and his second wife distressed me almost more than I could bear. (p.106)

He cannot wait to leave Dunley and a timely inheritance from an aunt to his father provides him with free lodging in inner-city Melbourne, so that he can study Arts at university.  (Well, that’s the plan.  And there’s a plan to write a novel too).  Only too ready to be delighted by everything Melbourne has to offer a young man with pseudo-intellectual pretensions, he moves into ‘Cairo’ – a block of flats which shelters a miscellany of characters including some splendid Bohemians.  These flats actually exist: they’re on Nicholson St Fitzroy and were designed by Australian modernist architect Best Overend.  You can see the distinctive architecture here.

But this is no ordinary bildungsroman…

Melburnians and art-lovers alike will remember the 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery in St Kilda Rd. The painting was returned, but to this day the crime remains unsolved.  Womersley plays in this novel with the concept behind this ‘kidnapping’: the Picasso thieves had called themselves The Australian Cultural Terrorists and they threatened to burn the painting unless the state government increased funding for the arts and set up an annual $25,000 ‘Picasso Ransom’ art prize to memorialise their heist in perpetuity.  These were thieves who disdained ‘establishment’ art and were willing to deny the rest of us the pleasure of viewing Australia’s only Picasso, presumably because they thought their own art superior to it.  There was a collective sigh of relief all over Melbourne when the painting was returned unharmed.

Anyway, for reasons Tom is too dim to discern, he is admitted into the charmed circle led by Max, an elegant would-be composer.  Max has strong opinions, and even stronger contempt for conformity.  He and his wife Sally play host to a Bohemian crowd from the arts community, wooing Tom with seductive all-night parties, plentiful booze, intellectual companionship and a disdain for the everyday Australia most of us live in:

‘You can’t make anything great in this country.  Imagine it.  Koo Wee Rup Revisited.  Breakfast at Dimmey’s.  The Wagga Symphony.  No one allows melancholy to take root here, and you cannot make great art without melancholy.  It’s as simple as that.

‘You know, in 1942 Shostakovich composed his seventh symphony: the Leningrad as it’s now known. This was during the war and three members of the orchestra who were meant to play died of starvation before the premiere.’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘All the good people leave. This country is large and unspectacular, but it’s completely and utterly dumb. Beaches and bimbos.  Here they worship cricket players and jockeys.  And criminals.  Which is often the same thing.’ (p. 72)

From time to time the older-and-wiser Tom intrudes to maintain the tension, reminding us that Tom’s naiveté made him vulnerable to seduction:

Foremost among Max’s talents was that of making everyone he encountered feel special merely by being in his company.  It was an ability to divine – like a palm reader – what people wished to hear about themselves.  I did not yet know that such a gift had a more sinister property; an ability to draw forth those aspects of one’s personality best kept under lock and key. (p. 64.  BTW forgive my pedantry, but that last semi colon should be a colon IMO).

Tom’s puzzled observations hint at the dark side of this charmed existence.  There are intriguing conversations overheard; there is curious secrecy and there is horrific brutality to a dog. Sally makes enigmatic pronouncements about the art in the studio.  Meticulously plotted to contrast Tom’s insouciance with an intriguing sense of menace, this novel moves inexorably towards his coming-of-age.

Chris Womersley’s third novel is a real treat.  Highly recommended.

Update 6/10/13 Do read Janine Rizetti’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip as well: she rated Cairo 10/10!

Author: Chris Womersley
Title: Cairo
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922070517
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing


Fishpond: Cairo
Or via Scribe (also available as an eBook)


  1. I ve still his first two books to read that I was sent ,Although this one appeals more than they have to me Lisa ,all the best stu


    • I think you’d like this one, Stu:)


  2. Great review, Lisa, of what sounds like another terrific Aussie novel.
    A baker called ‘Crusty Brown’…love it.


  3. Oh dear — and I thought it was just me dying to get out of the country town I grew up in! ;-)

    This sounds like a real treat, Lisa, and, as you say, so different to his previous two novels. I still remember the theft of the Weeping Woman; it was one of those “historical” moments in modern Australian history, I guess.

    Might have to hunt out a copy of this when I am in town at the end of September!


    • Kim, Karenlee, I think this is Womersley’s best yet. The narrator’s voice is just perfect and he has captured that angst that comes with maturity really well: ‘looking-back-on-the-stupid-things-I-did-when-I-was-young’ while at the same time feeling nostalgic about the loss of innocence.
      PS Kim, when are you coming in September … not when I’m up in Qld visiting my parents, I hope!


      • I’m in Vic the last 2 weeks of September, but not sure of dates I can get to Melbourne yet. May just be a day trip on the coach from Leongatha. I’ll email you.


  4. I enjoyed my trip to Cairo too, just finished it a few days ago. In that linked article on the flats you have in your review, the two art people described as sharing adjacent studios sound very familiar (!) Also, on facebook this morning there is a pic of one of the original ACT letters of demand which will make an appearance at Chris’s In Conversation With session next weekend at the Writers Festival, Saturday I think. It’s all quite fascinating and of course when there’s still an unsolved mystery, it becomes compelling in people’s imaginations and there’s a continued interest. It was a great choice of subject for him!


    • Jenny, we must see if we can meet up next Saturday: I’m at The Art of Literary Criticism (of course), Bookwallah and Colm Toibin in Conversation. Are you going to any of those?


      • I’m not at any of those but I’m also at a 4pm session – Meet the Editors up at the Wheeler Centre while you are at Colm T at Fed Square. But if you are free after that we could meet up somewhere? I’d love that… Let me know if that suits and we can work out a rendez vous.


        • I think we could do that. I will email you my mobile phone number so that we can text each other – it’s a bit hard to choose where to go for coffee because it’s not until you get there that you can find places that are not too crowded.


  5. Wonderful review, Lisa! This looks like a wonderful book. I didn’t know about the Picasso theft in Melbourne. Glad to know that the painting came back unharmed. It is so interesting that the novel is set in an actual place which has an artistic history. I checked the photos at the link you have given and they are quite interesting. It must be a wonderful place for artists to live together and have meetings and artistic conversations. Thanks for this wonderful review.


  6. I have a friend who used to live at Cairo. He is a silversmith, and it didn’t occur to me that it was an artists’ enclave- I just thought that it was where he happened to live! It was a very small flat but very light and it felt larger. I was surprised that they weren’t required to have railings on the front balcony (he was on the first floor). As I remember, the back steps were suffering with concrete cancer and it was all a bit tired. But the garden was wonderful- a real little oasis- and you really wouldn’t know that all that traffic was thundering away outside. The design of the shared kitchen provision and shared laundries was interesting- lots to be said for it!


    • You mean you have actually been there?! What an exciting coincidence:)


      • Yes- knocked at the port-holed front door; ate dinner cooked in the miniscule kitchenette; stood on the balcony overlooking the garden; checked out the old kitchen area out the back. I must read the book!


        • Ooh, envy! No photos?


          • No- I didn’t even realize it was significant. A curiosity yes, but I didn’t think that a book would be written about it later.


            • I know what you mean, it’s like those people you knew in the 70s who have since turned out to be significant, and you think, bother, I don’t even have a photo of them…


  7. Great review Lisa
    Looking forward to this one and a title to nominate for our schedule next year.


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