Occupied Paris is the backdrop for Watkins's eighth novel (after The Story of My Disappearance), a suspenseful historical tale of shifting allegiances and uneasy alliances. Shortly before WWII, David Halifax, a young American painter, receives a mysterious scholarship to study in Paris with the eccentric genius Alexander Pankratov. Halifax supplements his scholarship income by selling his sketches through a charming and unscrupulous art dealer, Guillaume Fleury. When war is declared, the three are enlisted by the French government in an elaborate scheme to prevent classic works of art from falling into German hands. With Pankratov's help, Halifax forges Old Masters that Fleury in turn trades for Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces the Germans consider ""degenerate,"" while the originals are hidden away in the French countryside. Halifax and his cronies must guard against discovery by the Germans and reprisals from the Resistance, who believe they are collaborators. Meanwhile, the only female character, an enigmatic nude model, plays a thankless role, tossed between her Nazi providers and the unreliable Pankratov. Halifax's wartime adventures end brutally, but the true denouement is a somewhat anticlimactic exercise in closure, set many years later. Halifax is a compelling narrator, and Watkins uses the psychology of the forger as a vehicle of inquiry into the nature of art and the creative process. The poisonous effects of war, occupation and constant fear are mirrored in the decline of the city and those trying to protect it. While Watkins's themes are familiar, they are deftly handled, the writer's painterly eye for detail matching that of his protagonist. Talented but a little emotionless, Watkins continues to produce solid, reliable literary novels, deviating little from that norm in his latest effort. Relegated to the limbo of midlist novelist, he could do with some dedicated handselling to recommend him to readers in search of quality writing and strong narrative drive. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 10/30/2000 Release date: 11/01/2000 Genre: Fiction
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