The soldiers fled into the sea of corn in an attempt to hide, but they were plainly visible to us and we knew they would be to the pilots too. It was a terrible sight; they crawled, trying to save their lives, inching along as slowly and carefully as they could so as not to move the corn, in the belief that they were invisible. The planes flew in a great arc up the valley, metal gleaming in the sun, and for a moment it looked as if they would be swallowed up in the blueness. Then they returned, gradually lowering their altitude before releasing a hail of machine-gun fire into the corn. They repeated the maneuver twice, then vanished in the direction of San Martino, sunlight flashing on their wings.”
In a way this is the scene we know is coming from the very beginning of Restoration, for Olaf Olafsson goes to the trouble in a foreword to sketch the movements of Allied and Axis troops in 1943-4 along the boot of Italy. Olafsson takes this background of intense drama and sets in the foreground a tale of multiple deceptions and betrayals that reaches its climax, as it must, when the front line of the battle for Italy reaches the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany.
Well-read italophiles will recognize Iris Origo even before reading Olafsson’s acknowledgments. Origo was part of the English colony of Florence who married an Italian and created, at her legendary estate La Foce, a kind of model community. Olafsson cites Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia as a key source, but Restoration, as a 21st-century historical novel, must leave that war diary pretty far behind. True, one of the principal characters is Alice Orsini, clearly modeled on Origo. But hers is only one of narratives braided together here. Other characters are the Icelandic art restorer Kristin Jonsdottir, who mysteriously appears at the isolated San Martino estate in the days before the Germans reach it; the enigmatic art dealer and restorer Robert Marshall, who appears to be selling paintings to Göring and Hitler; and Alice’s husband Claudio, whose absence is as strong as a presence.
At the very center of the novel is a Caravaggio painting that passes through Kristin’s hands and becomes a McGuffin in the Hitchcockian sense. Several of the characters have a stake in its existence and its whereabouts. For Kristin, it represents both her identity as an artist and her revenge against Marshall, whose mistress she was. For Alice, it poses a threat to everyone at San Martino, and its menace hinges on her own deepest regrets. None of the characters is especially subtly drawn but they’re believable enough, and Marshall’s blank domineering quality is paradoxically intriguing. The narrative has been whirled in a chronological Cuisinart so you have to piece together bits of the mystery until the middle of the book, after which the imminent arrival of battle takes over in the suspense department. Unfortunately the story is also parceled out to various points of view, which sometimes become confusing. Both Kristin and Alice narrate in the first person; in addition their actions are recounted by a third-person narrator, and — least effective — Alice keeps a diary which she addresses to her missing husband.
Notwithstanding the questions of creative originality raised by Kristin’s narrative, this is a tale of actions rather than ideas. About halfway through I began mentally casting it as a lush, middlebrow costume drama. It’s been at least fifteen years since The English Patient won its Oscar. Hollywood, are you listening?