Fake by Stephanie Wood (Vintage, $A34.99)
Fake is Stephanie Wood’s deeply personal story about her relationship with a total fraud and fantasist called Joe, and brings to mind the classic Catfish documentary from some years ago and the more recent series about Bad John.
Stephanie was an award winning and successful Australian journalist when she first met Joe through a dating app. In her personal life, however, she was a little insecure and concerned about her single status. She found Joe to be sweet, compassionate, loving and truthful and despite some initial reservations, she embarked on an exhilarating romance with him. Gradually, and with his encouragement, she began to think of a future life together.
Over time, however, Joe’s odd stories, frequent cancellations, elaborate explanations and no-shows make her realise that something was not quite right. By this stage she was deeply in love with him and his increasingly strange behaviour flung her into a growing state of anxiety that impacted upon her work and health. Finally, she finds the courage to end the relationship.
Rediscovering her journalistic skills, Stephanie embarks on a journey to find out who Joe really is. What she uncovers is astounding. His elaborate web of lies about his life as a wealthy sheep farmer, property developer and former employee at a private equity firm are all proven to be false. As is his house on Sydney Harbour and his yacht. His claims about his past endeavours as a successful architect similarly prove to be less than true and when she finds Joe’s former business partner learns she learns of how Joe sent him bankrupt and into despair. There is also at least one another woman, who seems to be in a similar relationship with Joe.
The details of Joe’s deception are fascinating. In a relatively minor case, he sends Stephanie a photo of his four-wheel drive axle-deep in mud with the caption, ‘my day’, to explain his absence. When Stephanie applies a Google reverse-image search function to the photo, she uncovers that Joe had pinched the photo from a Land Rover owner’s forum and cropped it to remove identifying details:
“He embellished his self-portrait as a rugged man of the bush with a doctored photograph of someone else’s ute, someone else’s day in the mud.”
When she makes contact with the other woman, Kirstie, they share details and realise that he was busily dashing between them and weaving elaborate stories to explain why he could not stay longer with either of them. The stories that he had to keep straight in his mind were so elaborate that Stephanie and Kirstie amusingly wonder if he used a ‘whiteboard’ and pictured him:
“standing at his whiteboard pondering plotlines and excuses, switching between multi-coloured marker pens, biting his lip in concentration. Two columns – one for Kirstie, one for me – to help him keep his stories straight.”
There is a wealth of fascinating insights that could fuel dozens of crime stories and writers of domestic suspense could draw usefully from this book.
This is a fascinating and deeply moving account by Stephanie, who lays bare frank and honest details about her personal life before, during and after Joe, and her deteriorating mental health. She also weaves into her account a wider narrative about the rise of con artists and narcissists in today’s society and reflects on modern love and relationships. Some of her reflections, however, are more interesting than others, and occasionally the book becomes a little bogged. Despite her best efforts, she also fails to really understand what drove Joe to do it, as he never took money from either woman and the source of his income remains vague.
Stephanie Wood is a gifted writer and she knows how to pace the book and when to insert new discoveries to keep the narrative flowing. She also has a journalist eye for the telling detail and can quickly craft a compelling scene. It is a very engaging account of a very sad deception.
Above all else, Fake is an engaging and well written story about heartbreak and resilience. It is one of the most interesting books you will read all year.
Four and a half stars!
Thanks to Penguin Random House Australia and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book. A shorter version of this review will appear in the Canberra Weekly on 26 July 2019.