• Review
By – March 18, 2024

Art is root­ed in imag­i­na­tion, and arti­fice, in skill. Set in the Nether­lands dur­ing World War II, Sharon Cameron’s intri­cate­ly woven sto­ry cen­ters on forged paint­ing and decep­tion. Indi­vid­u­als’ motives vary; for Isa de Smit, the daugh­ter of a gallery own­er, com­mit­ting fraud offers her a chance to out­wit Nazi col­lec­tors and save Jew­ish children.

There are sev­er­al para­dox­es in Cameron’s com­pelling sto­ry. Some char­ac­ters are whol­ly fic­tion­al, while oth­ers are based on his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. Although Nazi lead­ers such as Her­mann Göring were obsessed with ban­ning degen­er­ate art,” they also craved the oppor­tu­ni­ty to acquire per­son­al col­lec­tions, whether through pur­chase or theft of icon­ic paint­ings. Isa real­izes that she can sell forged art­works to her country’s occu­piers and earn des­per­ate­ly need­ed cash.

When her friend, Tru­us, who is active in the resis­tance, needs mon­ey to aid the escape of Jew­ish chil­dren, Isa becomes enmeshed in a dan­ger­ous web of ques­tion­able rela­tion­ships and risky acts. Her dan­ger­ous attempt to work with not­ed Ver­meer forg­er Han van Meegeren, an actu­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, high­lights the moral ambi­gu­i­ty of her cir­cle. Noth­ing is as it appears on the sur­face, caus­ing Isa to con­stant­ly ques­tion the world as she knows it. Just as a new paint­ing can be phys­i­cal­ly and chem­i­cal­ly aged, peo­ple may alter their iden­ti­ties and engage in decep­tion. Brown is the col­or of Nazi uni­forms, the wrap­ping paper enclos­ing paint­ings, and the taste­less cof­fee sub­sti­tute mas­querad­ing as the real beverage.

Cameron builds nar­ra­tive ten­sion through Isa’s reflec­tions on ene­mies and friends. Her father is a con­sum­mate artist and forg­er, and he’s also com­pro­mised by a depen­dence on sub­stances. Her friend Truus’s com­pan­ion, Willem, har­bors a rigid moral code, yet his behav­ior sug­gests that he may be mask­ing deep­er truths about him­self. Michel Lange is a Ger­man sol­dier who claims to oppose the Nazi regime, but Isa is tor­ment­ed by her inabil­i­ty to inter­pret his ulti­mate goals. In every occu­pied coun­try, the Nazis found col­lab­o­ra­tors — whether they were eager or reluc­tant — and the Nether­lands was no excep­tion. Few Dutch Jews sur­vived the war. This tragedy pro­vides the con­text for Isa’s com­mit­ment to res­cue even a small num­ber of Jews. Rather than empha­siz­ing hero­ism, the author depicts fear and con­fu­sion as much as courage.

With a com­plex plot, care­ful­ly drawn char­ac­ters, and many doubts, Isa’s sto­ry demands that we pay atten­tion. Isa strug­gles to under­stand how the Nazi col­lec­tors can be attract­ed to beau­ty even as they com­mit atroc­i­ties. This con­tra­dic­tion is nev­er explained, leav­ing a dark mys­tery at the story’s cen­ter. Until the con­clu­sion, read­ers, like Isa her­self, remain unsure of the out­come. We also dis­cov­er the intri­ca­cies of art forgery, and even learn to ques­tion the bina­ry divi­sion between art and artifice.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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