The two-time New Zealand Booker winner (The True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000, etc.) traces the honeycombed ramifications of a brazen literary hoax (based on a real incident that occurred in 1943 in Australia).
Carey’s initial narrator is Englishwoman Sarah Wode-Douglass, who edits a struggling magazine, and, more or less impulsively, accompanies renegade writer John Slater on a trip to Kuala Lumpur—despite “hating him all my life”—for what she believes was Slater’s adulterous responsibility for her mother’s suicide. That’s one complication. Then, in Malaysia, Sarah encounters poet maudit Christopher Chubb, now a homeless indigent subsisting as a bicycle repairman, who claims a history with Slater that the latter hastily disavows. Chubb makes an extravagant claim: that he had perpetrated a hoax by circulating his own poems as the works of nonexistent genius “Bob McCorkle” (the fallout from this deception caused the death of a young editor, and destroyed Chubb’s career); and that “McCorkle” came to life, swore vengeance on his “creator,” and went on to ruin several other lives. Chubb’s and Slater’s conflicting stories are juxtaposed with Sarah’s editorial quandary (should she scoop the literary world by publishing faked “masterpieces”?) and increasingly dangerous investigations. Carey’s corker of a plot (with echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) delivers surprise after surprise and peaks with a masterly extended set-piece that pits Chubb vs. “McCorkle” in the steaming hotbed of (then) Malaya under Japanese occupation. Issues of artistic inspiration, integrity, and authenticity are thus brilliantly allegorized in a wonderland of a yarn, of which (the not entirely veracious) Slater declares “He [i.e., Chubb] will drag you into his delusional world, have you believing the most preposterous things.”
So will Peter Carey, God bless him. A Nabokovian masterpiece.