Book review: The Work, Bri Lee

Old and new art mix with old and new values in this debut novel from Bri Lee.
Two panels. On the left is the cover of the book with 'The Work' written on a diagonal slant in white and yellow against a skyscraper background. On the right is a blonde woman wearing a white blouse standing against large window panes.

Australian writer Bri Lee is well known for her extensive analysis of society and culture in her non-fictional works, but it seems she has thrown all that research into her debut novel, which doesn’t quite make The Work as an enjoyable read as it could be. 

New Yorker Lally is in her mid-30s and has finally landed on her feet, opening her new art gallery and reaping rewards after relentless sacrifices. A champion of new artists, Lally also knows that for her gallery to survive, she needs to program some well-known artists who will bring in the attention and the money. After a successful opening exhibition, she books Chuck Farr, a egocentric artist who’s been accused of sexual foul play by a number of his previous models. She brushes aside the gut feelings that booking him is a bad idea. 

In Australia, 20-something Pat strives to carve out a niche in antiques in Sydney. The golden child of his family and a scholarship recipient from country Queensland, he’s yet to make the most of his privileged upbringing. Pat secures a promising client, a divorcee and the mother of an old school mate. His luck at work starts to shift when he finds himself not just selling her wares, but enjoying her company in the bedroom.

Meeting at New York’s Armory Show, Lally and Pat instantly connect, where there’s a fine line between flirting and debating art and politics. Once Pat returns home, their lives entwine even more. They grapple with money, ambition, and their love for art, all while their relationship grows stronger. It’s not until Lally’s show with the misogynist artist goes horribly wrong that Pat and Lally finally make a commitment to each other. But even then Lally questions, ‘Would it be possible, ever, to be a good person in life as well as a great person in art?’

What shocks the reader from the very beginning, if you’ve read Lee’s non-fiction, is the amount of graphic sex in this novel. From the very first chapter there is erotics at play, and if it is sexual specificity the prose is aiming for, it fizzles out and gets rather laboured to read after each encounter. 

But this provocative page-turner switches from character to character seamlessly, without ever lingering on one too long. The romantic plot keeps us interested, whereas the ideas surrounding it often bog down what the story actually is. Many ideas are brought up and then brushed over, for example the issue of diversity in art. It’s woke work but leaves a lot unresolved. 

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Art is the winner in this novel, or the art world more specifically, with conversations about old and new art dancing between the perceptions of cultural and societal value. While viewing Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes in The Met, Pat says the work is ‘not supposed to be a hundred per cent accurate’, and Lally replies, ‘But isn’t accuracy important? Isn’t that what you were saying about the age of science and art being so similar?’ to which Pat replies, ‘He’s trying to do both! His belief that it is possible to do both is the driver!’ This sentiment mirrors, in some ways, Lee’s work, where we as the reader question if the weaving of her non-fiction’s success into her fiction will mean this work is worthy of merit.

As a first fiction it has its flaws, but Bri Lee’s The Work is a relatable read for our times. In between the erotica, Lee has used her knowledge from her already praised non-fiction to craft an intelligent and stimulating story which hopefully is just the beginning of future fictional works.

The Work, Bri Lee
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 9781761069390
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400 pp
Publication date: 3 Apr 2024
RRP: $32.99

Lisette Drew is a writer, theatre maker and youth literature advocate, who has worked nationally and overseas on over 50 theatrical productions. Her play, Breakwater, was shortlisted for two playwriting awards and her novel The Cloud Factory was longlisted for The Hawkeye Prize. In 2022 she received a Kill Your Darlings Mentorship and was a City of Melbourne Writer-in-Residence. Lisette shares her love for stories and storytelling running writing and theatre workshops for children.