I imagine researching and organising your material would be one of the most exciting challenges of writing a historical novel. Obviously this wasn’t the case for Olaf Olafson. He decided to save time and energy by simply shoplifting wholesale the fabulous memoirs of Iris Origo. He steals her house and her wartime experiences to give his novel its structure and heart and then, to add insult to injury, invents an adultery on her part to commercially liven things up. I suppose if you have no knowledge of War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 you might find merit and enjoyment in this aspect of the novel. But it’s what Olafson adds to his pilfering that made this a clumsy and rather pointless novel for me. Welded onto Origo’s memoirs with little artistry is a story about a forged painting. An art student with little training is suddenly and wholly implausibly restoring old master paintings. And not only can she restore old master paintings she can also forge a Caravaggio – a Caravaggio that has no existence but is accepted without a shred of suspicion by everyone in the art world as authentic. This painting is supposed to supply the mystery and heartbeat to the novel but I’m afraid I never once believed in it. Also the aesthetic correlation between the painting and the Origo narrative was forced and uneasy, like a broken vase glued back together by a guilty child. Maybe he thought he was being clever by forging someone’s memoirs in a novel about a forged painting? I was simply left wondering why, if a novelist can’t invent his own world, is he writing novels at all? If I were related to iris origo I’d probably think about suing.
But do read the original – War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944