Florence 1966, a magnet for tourists and art students, a paradise full of art treasures, leaky buildings full of history, their walls displaying famous paintings, their hallways home to famous statues. Florence 1966, the war still present in the injured begging in the streets, the destitute turning to crime to survive, tattoos concealed on arms – and the Arno brooding in preparation for a deluge, a deluge that will swirl five people together and make apparent their crimes, and expose the misogyny and skewed priorities of the art world.
The forger and the thief is backgrounded by the Arno flood, which took many lives and works of art, some even today awaiting restoration. The reader’s insight into this maelstrom is provided by five disparate but entwined characters, and the spirit of the river herself, “dashing and crashing, teasing the gods until they threw their hands up in anger.”
American Richard Carstone is in Florence for the wedding of the woman who, before his brother’s accidental death, was his sister-in-law. Julia also happens to be the woman Carstone thinks he should be marrying. We hear more about Carstone’s nothing-to-be-proud-about past as the story unfolds. Another American, Rhonda Devlyn, is escaping from an abusive relationship, wondering “Would Florence deliver the peace and the security she deserved?” Rhonda is one of those invisible women “slipping unnoticed into middle age, losing her looks and youth …”
Helena Stolar is an art student, and apart from her work-experience assignment, she is trying to trace a lost family treasure. Italian Stefano Mazzi, is a cleaner, “No one ever sees the cleaner.” Mazzi has a traumatic back-story and a plan. Antonio Pisani is a disgraced policeman, lazing his way through the day, relying on the work of his partner, Rosa Fonti, for results. After all, Rosa is there to be used, her just being “a woman in a workplace not designed for her kind.”
Carstone looks down on the Italians, “Foreigners so jealous of his country, that they liked nothing better [than] to get one up on Americans”, and the Italian characters despise the Americans, their lax approach to security and ensuing outrage when robbed, “Who travels to a foreign country and leaves their handbag hanging on the back of their chair?”, their failing to properly appreciate the art they have flocked to see, “Were their eyes incapable of taking in the beauty?”
Despite the suspicion between the nationalities, the one thing they have in common is their view of women as property, people there to serve their men. There are posters everywhere of a young woman who is missing, or are there posters of many women? “So many beautiful girls come to Florence, for employment or to study. After a time, they blend into one.” Contrasting with this real-world suppression of women is the adulation they receive when they are painted on canvasses or sculpted from marble, it is no coincidence that Helena’s thesis is “the Changing Depiction of Women in Frescoes in the Italian Renaissance.” There is a strange and spooky concretisation of the transition of objectified artists’ models to actual objects in the book, “Art is pain and only genuine artists can harness that pain.”
The book starts with rushing water, and as we get to know the characters, they are constantly battling downpours, leaks, and soggy clothes. The visitors are assured that all is under control, the leaks and rising water merely “part of life as a Florentine.” But the more we learn about our dubious five, the higher the water rages and soon they are “in an apocalyptic rainstorm, without a clue what to do next.” We see the other sides of our people, the sides, both good and bad, that emerge in a state of emergency. And we also see the priorities of society, with people from all nations, the Mud Angels, rushing to the Uffizi, “focussed on saving the historic buildings and their contents. No one cared about the poor living nearer the commercial zone, left to fend for themselves.”
The stories of the five characters and the river are cleverly wound together, allowing the reader to slot the pieces together. There is tension both from the schemes and plots as well as from the rising waters. I found some of the similes and metaphors hurdles rather than aids to the narrative, for example “more scrapes down the side than a water buffalo in Africa”, “security guards who’d arrived slower than a sloth on heat.” But the descriptions of the art works and art world are great, “… vials of crushed gemstones, powdered beetle carcasses, and foreign seed pods.” You can smell the oil paint and feel the flakes of paint.
By the end of the book, the reader has got to know and understand the central characters, and the fact that I found it ended too abruptly is probably testament to my wanting to stay with them a bit longer. The forger and the thief is an enjoyable soggy read, with dollops of history thrown in.