The question of Van Gogh attribution is, in other words, a can of worms over which scholarly reputations and immense fortunes continue to be at stake. In taking the Wacker affair as its inspiration, Clare Clark’s sixth work of historical fiction, as compelling as it is expansive, virtually writes its own publicity...The novel’s historical authority is not entirely flawless. Regarding the pace of construction in Berlin, Emmeline observes “people hurrying along the planks set up where the pavements should have been, and it was like the old films in the days before the talkies”. Since this episode occurs in 1927, the year The Jazz Singer was released, it seems a little precipitate to reflect on silent films as a bygone era. But at the heart of the book lies a quest for authenticity that has a bearing on our own times.
Emmeline, an artist in her twenties, searching for love and meaning in the whirlpool of the city’s life, is drawn into the controversy that now surrounds Matthias and the authenticity of paintings he has sold. By 1933, the Nazis have taken power. Frank, a Jewish lawyer, grows increasingly aware of the terrible threat they pose to him and his family, even as he is entangled in the web woven by Matthias’s dealings in Van Gogh works of dubious provenance. With great skill and sympathy, Clark evokes a febrile society in which politics, love and art offer no certainties, and the ground always threatens to open beneath her characters’ feet.
It’s a fascinating tale, although the characters’ artifice can feel more enticing than the forgery case... Clare Clark’s books have been praised by Hilary Mantel, and her historical worlds are meticulously researched... In this book she finds the stink in beauty... The art world is richly drawn and its atmosphere pervades the novel... the third act feels heavy-handed, only there to tell us something we know already. When Frank delivers the big reveal, it’s a little underwhelming. No matter, though; the most enjoyable mystery here is the matter of whether anyone is really their authentic self.