The Diplomat

Chris Womersley

The Diplomat
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The Diplomat

Chris Womersley

1991. Fresh out of detox and five years after his involvement in the theft of Picasso’s masterpiece The Weeping Woman from the NGV, Edward Degraves - art forger and drug addict - returns to Melbourne for a new start. All he needs to do is make one last visit to The Diplomat, a seedy motel renowned for its drug dealers and eccentrics.

But Edward’s new-found sobriety is both a torment and a gift. As he revisits old haunts, he is confronted by reminders of the past: ruined relationships, a stalled career as an artist and - looming over everything - the death of his beloved wife Gertrude.

Shot through with grief and dark comedy, The Diplomat is a powerful story of love and recovery - and a stark evocation of the fine line between self-destruction and redemption.

Review

The Diplomat is a companion of sorts rather than a sequel to Chris Womersley’s acclaimed third novel, Cairo. Named after a block of flats in Fitzroy, Cairo followed a group of art desperados living in the titular building and culminated in the theft of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman from the NGV. One of those artists was Edward Degraves, painter, art forger and the protagonist of this new novel. In The Diplomat, we learn Edward and his wife, Gertrude, escaped Australia, and moved through Europe before settling in London, where they take drugs, forge art and live on the edge.

When Edward is arrested on his way to a score, he is forcibly placed in a detox facility. While in there, he is notified that Gertrude has died alone in their flat. Devastated by her death, he promises himself to make good on the new start they had planned together, deciding to return to Australia. To fund this plan, however, he has to smuggle in a bag of heroin. He also has to face Gertrude’s very disapproving parents, who are shattered to learn of their daughter’s death when Edward appears with her ashes. While Edward deals with the shaky uncertainty of being clean while still going through withdrawals, he also attempts to complete his mission, making contact with his old drug dealers to sell the heroin he has smuggled in. This section of the book is incredibly tense; not only is he sick, there is the possibility he will be robbed or killed.

What is most remarkable about The Diplomat is the prose. It is beautiful, clear and precise and avoids all self-pity for Edward. Womersley walks a tightrope where he makes no excuses for Edward, but we sympathise deeply with him and hope he is able to pull off his harebrained scheme. So many novels in which drug- or alcohol-affected protagonists wallow in their misery don’t have any other arc. This novel has that, as well as being incredibly evocative of a hot grungy summer in Brunswick and St Kilda.

The Diplomat is a tremendously moving tale of regret, atonement and redemption; I can’t remember the last time I read a book that manages this with such aplomb. It is easily the best Australian novel I have read since the wonderful In Moonland by Miles Allinson.


Pierre Sutcliffe is a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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