Cairo by Chris Womersley
Languishing in a country town in the 1980s, 17-year-old Tom Button yearns for escape. When his favourite aunt passes away, he seizes the opportunity to move into her old apartment in a run-down Fitzroy complex named Cairo. Here he meets an eccentric group of artists and bohemians, including the enigmatic musician Max Cheever and his beautiful wife, Sally. Enthralled by their charisma, Tom is introduced to a vibrant world of carefree hedonism, all-night parties and illicit sex. But as guards are let down and motives are revealed, Tom finds himself part of something much more sinister – fraud, heroin addicts and the infamous theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.
Chris Womersley’s third novel, the follow-up to the hugely successful Bereft, brilliantly captures that unique blend of excitement and terror that comes with stepping out into adulthood for the first time. Tom is naïve yet reckless, devoted to his friends and desperate for their approval: ‘to me they were fabulous, magical beings, capable of anything. They could do no wrong.’ Womersley’s characters are complex, charming and mysterious – every one of them is keeping secrets, from each other and themselves.
Womersley quite deliberately places Tom and his friends in a very recognisable Melbourne – their haunts (and the Cairo apartments) are real parts of the city’s geography, and the Picasso theft is a very real part of history. The warmth of Womersley’s writing allows for such interplay between fiction and reality: real-world references do not feel contrived; rather, they’re satisfying and authentic, bringing the reader in closer to Tom’s close-knit cohort. Cairo is smart, thrilling and extremely well written – a fantastic read.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.