War has been a backdrop for countless works of classic fiction throughout the ages. From Shakespearean times through the modern age, warfare has provided both background and impetus for terrific character studies.
Olaf Olafsson’s latest novel is no exception. Set during World War II at a crumbling Tuscany villa in the town of San Martino, RESTORATION explores the lives of several brave and determined characters during tragic times. When a wealthy young English woman named Alice agrees to marry an older Italian man, Claudio Orsini, she has no idea how that decision will impact the rest of her life.
"Like all great war novels, RESTORATION does not pull away from the horrors that come along with warfare.... Olafsson deftly peels back the layers of this tale and does not reveal all of its secrets until the final pages are turned."
Together, Alice and Claudio purchase an out-of-the-way Tuscan villa that is in much need of repair. Alice is completely out of her element, both physically and culturally. In an attempt to adapt to her new surroundings, she spends her time teaching illiterate children and learning how to run a farm. Land ownership is far more than she bargained for, but she is content.
Time passes, and the shadow of world war is fast approaching their doorstep. Rome is already in the middle of the turmoil created by the war, and even the most remote Tuscan village will not remain untouched by its horrors. To make matters worse, Alice and Claudio are raising their young son, Giovanni, in the midst of this tumultuous time. Tragedy strikes their small family in the form of an illness to which Giovanni eventually succumbs.
Not knowing how to deal with this in the face of all the other adversity that surrounds them, Alice and Claudio begin to grow apart. As Alice starts preparing for the approaching war, she involves herself in individual endeavors that create a further divide in her marriage. Inexplicably and without warning, one day Claudio disappears, leaving Alice and a few colleagues and farmhands to deal with the wartime horrors on their own. Simultaneous to this storyline is the tale of Kristin, a young girl from Copenhagen who has travelled to Italy to find work as a sketcher of famous sculptures. Kristin is taken on by art restorer Robert Marshall, who fancies both her skill and her feminine charms. He immediately puts Kristin to work on restoring various classic paintings while also commencing a steamy affair with her. Robert is married with children, and this dilemma consistently torments the young and fragile Kristin.
Once the war has finally crossed into their village, both Alice and Kristin are touched by it in different ways. Alice and her villa are utilized as both hospital and boarding home for injured and displaced soldiers and locals. Kristin is forced to take on additional work for her boss. In particular, one painting is given to Robert by a Nazi commander, and he is tasked with both restoring and hiding it.
As the war seems to be drawing to a close, the body count is piling up, and many people begin to act out of desperation. This is a daunting challenge to Alice, still grieving over the death of her only son and disappearance of her husband. Even with a mass of humanity surrounding her, she feels terribly alone; her only aid in getting through this difficult period is her colleague and family friend, Pritchett.
It is here when the stories of Alice and Kristin converge as the German army has turned to Pritchett to hide some of their art work and other possessions that were collected during the war. Alice, Kristin and Pritchett have to make many difficult decisions in the wake of self-preservation, but their consciences all pay the price. In a way, not only are works of art being restored in this novel, but the lives of the three --- permanently scarred by war --- are in desperate need of restoration and salvation.
Like all great war novels, RESTORATION does not pull away from the horrors that come along with warfare. A scene towards the end of the book, featuring a mass gravesite for bodies left in the woods, will stir even the heartiest reader. Olafsson deftly peels back the layers of this tale and does not reveal all of its secrets until the final pages are turned. It is left up to the reader to determine if the souls that have been damaged within the confines of this novel are ever truly restored.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 2, 2012