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The new novel from Australian author Bri Lee sounds promising: It’s about art and money, passion and sex, with a plotline that flies from downtown Manhattan to inner-city Sydney. And it has strong personalities plucked from the gallerists, auctioneers, artists, and collectors who populate the contemporary art world and fill up the fancy galleries to quaff champagne on opening nights.

Lee has previously made a name for herself as a non-fiction writer and socio-cultural critic but this is her first foray into fiction. Some of the themes from her previous works clearly inform the novel as it deals with issues of art and artistic licence, of money and power, of culture and cultural gatekeepers. These are all interesting and of the moment but are overlaid here with dislikeable characters, grating language, and sex scenes taken straight from the imagination of a frisky fifteen-year-old. 

The sexual encounters are not portrayed as erotic or sensual, they’re just smutty and crass. And lest you think I’m a prude, it’s fine to describe your morning ritual as ‘kissing down his chest towards his dick but dodged blow job duty with a quick shift into cowgirl’ but a bit more eroticism and less of the ‘wham bam’ delivery would be good. After all, there are fifty shades of grey, as we know.

The novel is strongest when it deals with moral and ethical dilemmas, embodied here by bad-boy artist Chuck Farr who is facing multiple allegations of coercion and improper behaviour.  There are also issues of power and corruption underlying many of the relationships including the central liaison between gallerist Lally and aspiring art auctioneer and valuer Pat. It would be good to delve deeper into these conflicts. And despite being set in the rarefied world of contemporary art, there is actually disappointingly little art discussed in the book. 

The Work certainly gallops along at a cracking pace and would be a great read on the morning commute, providing you can shield more delicate souls from the raunchy romps. Overall, it’s a pacy and ambitious first novel but it would be stronger with more art and less sex. 

Bri Lee’s THE WORK has published by Allen and Unwin. Recommended Retail Price $32.99

Bri Lee, The Work, Allen & Unwin, $32.99



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