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by James King

Many novels are written around real lives, ranging from books that are near-biographies of major figures to concoctions based upon a bare historical mention, such as Jacqueline Park’s 1997 The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rozzi. Faking falls in between the two extremes, taking up the story of Regency fop Thomas Wainewright, an esthete, painter, forger, probable murderer, and above all, faker. Although the facts about Wainewright’s life are scarce, he has been written about by Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and other less well-known authors.

In James King’s Faking, Wainewright’s story is told by a number of different characters, including a fictional version of Wainewright himself. Each has a different take on the allegations that the real Wainewright was responsible for several murders (nothing was ever proven), and the series of fakes and frauds that led him to Tasmania.

In passing, King examines the ephemeral qualities of art and of lives – what the fictitious Wainewright describes at one point as a “Snakes and Ladders approach to autobiography.” It’s an apt metaphor that suggests the story of a life is all about what one reveals, or, as in the game of Snakes and Ladders, how the dice roll. It is a subjective account.

King is himself an accomplished biographer, having penned a noted book on Herbert Read in 1991 and The Life of Margaret Laurence in 1997. Faking, his first novel, is convincing, but too self-referential at times. The “voices” from the late 18th and early 19th centuries sounded contemporary to this reviewer, and the reader may find it disorienting to not know where history ends and invention begins.

Nevertheless, Faking is by turns philosophical, funny, pathetic, and historically revealing – ultimately, it’s worthwhile reading.