Clare Clark’s sixth book is another slice of well researched and compellingly told historical fiction. “In the Full Light of the Sun” is inspired by an infamous forgery case that sent shock waves through Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. In her author’s note, Clark states that on more than one occasion she considered not tinkering with the truth and instead clinging to the facts — but changed her mind after realizing just how far-fetched those facts appeared. In the end she dreamed up her own. “Fiction,” she notes, “unlike the truth, cannot defy belief.”

Her novel still reads like an outlandish tale. Set in Berlin, it unfolds in three distinct sections, each of them revolving around a different character. In the first part, dated 1923, we meet Germany’s pre-eminent art expert Julius. He is in a bad way: His young wife has just left him, taking with her their baby son and his prized Van Gogh self-portrait — “The painting that for thirty years had turned over his heart.”

He comes into contact with art dealer Matthias Rachmann, who brightens his spirits and piques his curiosity. Rachmann has got his hands on a cache of 32 never-seen-before Van Gogh paintings which were smuggled out of revolutionary Russia by a mysterious prince. Julius’ better judgment is clouded by unbridled excitement. In time, his authenticating stamp of approval sends the Berlin art world into frenzy, makes Rachmann into a celebrity, and turns “an impoverished Dutch madman into the most expensive artist in German history.”

Clark’s second section fleshes out a character introduced earlier, one whom Julius calls “the troublemaker with the tattered nails.” Hotheaded Emmeline flouts the wishes of her coldhearted mother and studies art in Berlin. By 1927 her woes have started to pile up, from unrequited love to unfulfilled ambitions. But the real blow comes when the police ask questions about her steady income and talent for artistic imitations.

The last section of the book is composed of diary extracts from the pivotal year of 1933. Frank, Rachmann’s lawyer, reviews the case, reveals the outcome, and reflects on his increasingly difficult situation amid the worsening sociopolitical climate.

Clark takes a while to get going. Her initial chapters feel less like a steady buildup and more like an overlong preamble. But once the plot takes shape and the seemingly disparate parts slot into place, the novel roars to life. Clark brilliantly evokes both the decadence of Weimar Berlin and the impending Nazi menace. Her characters’ singular struggles prove riveting. Her scattered artistic references are effective, whether descriptions (“In the chiaroscuro candlelight his face was the face of a Caravaggio”) or excerpts from Van Gogh’s letters.

Above all, though, it is the heightened intrigue that keeps us invested. “Provenance is murky,” says Julius, weighing up a painting’s worth. Not half as murky as the scandal that will engulf him.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the Full Light of the Sun
By: Clare Clark.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 424 pages, $27.