I know nothing about art. Well, almost nothing. I have this
wonderfully huge coffee table book that reproduces the work of
Hieronymus Bosch and that I consult on occasion for inspiration (I
never claimed to be wrapped too tightly). I also have a basement
full of "sequential art" --- that's what fans of comic books call
them when they wish to be pretentious. That's it. So I didn't even
know there was such a thing as the Amber Room. It is accordingly a
measure of the strength of this fine first novel by Stephen Berry
that while reading it I spent hours on the Internet delving further
into the history of it, and will continue to do so.
The Amber Room --- the art object, that is --- has not received
much press in the United States but is very well known in Europe.
It is a work of art with a rich and enigmatic history. It is, in
actuality, a room constructed out of amber, with artwork carved
into the amber. Berry drops little nuggets of information about
amber throughout THE AMBER ROOM, and for those of us who thought
amber was only good for trapping flies, it's fascinating info. But
THE AMBER ROOM is not an art or science textbook. The Amber Room of
history and of this novel disappeared during World War II while in
the possession of Nazi Germany. There are several theories
regarding what happened to it. It may have been destroyed, it may
have been hidden too well, or it may be in the hands of a private
collector. No one really knows for sure.
Berry takes this mystery and cleverly uses it to build a novel
around. THE AMBER ROOM involves an unlikely protagonist, Atlanta
Judge Rachel Cutler, and her attorney ex-husband Paul. Rachel has
an interesting connection to the Amber Room: her father, a White
Russian who was taken prisoner by the German Army during World War
II, has some clues as to the location of the Amber Room that he has
kept to himself for decades. When he dies suddenly and
mysteriously, the information that he kept hidden is
Cutler, doubting that her father's death was an accident, travels
to Germany with Paul sensing that danger is following close behind.
They are unaware that they are on a collision course with two art
collectors who have made the acquisition of stolen or supposedly
lost art treasures a competition, and that they both will acquire
what they seek by any means necessary. Berry leads the Cutlers, and
his readers, on a thrilling chase through a Europe that is off the
guidebook path and through the world of clandestine art collecting
before revealing the surprising final fate of the Amber Room.
Berry's writing is surprisingly surefooted and confident as he
takes a subject that is of limited and specialized interest and
uses it as a vehicle for a thrilling debut novel with certain
widespread appeal. There are not many writers working today with
the ability to do this --- Jeffery Deaver comes most immediately to
mind --- but Berry certainly joins those talented ranks with THE
AMBER ROOM. Let's look, and hope, for more from Berry soon.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 20, 2011