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Restoration by Olaf Olafsson

Restoration by Olaf Olafsson

Some time ago I read the books War in Val D’Orcia and Images and Shadows by Iris Origo, and a biography about Iris Origo by Caroline Moorhead (the review was posted on our website in March 2010). During a trip to Tuscany I visited the home of Iris Origo, south of Montepulciano, a farm she and her husband restored and cultivated before, during, and after the Second World War. It is still a working farm, producing olive oil, and some of the buildings are now used as tourist accommodation.

The Icelandic-American author Olaf Olafsson, researching and reading about Tuscany, came across these same books and was obviously as taken with the story of this woman as I was. He though, chose to write a novel about Tuscany, taking the liberty of using the life of Iris Origo as the all-too-real “inspiration” for one of the characters in his recently published novel Restoration. This is what drew me to the novel, but as I read I felt decidedly uncomfortable, feeling that there was something unseemly about using this woman’s personal life as the character in a novel. Perhaps it was because the author seemed to me to be far too factual in using events in Iris Origo’s life, while at the same time taking liberties with her life that somehow seemed to be over-stepping some ethical line. It was not until the author moved further away from fact into fiction that I felt that he was writing a novel and not a biography.

Restoration is not in any way meant to be historical fiction, which again makes me wonder why the author did not simply create a character who may have lived in a manner similar to Iris Origo but not so closely that she would be identified with the real woman. Olaf Olafsson does admit that he uses Iris Origo as the inspiration for the character Alice in his novel, and he gradually adds other characters who are based on some of Iris Origo’s family and friends, while others might be pure fiction.

The novel takes place during the Second World War as Alice’s farm provides a home for orphans, and shelters partisans and Allied soldiers who have escaped from the Nazi occupation. Alice’s husband disappeared shortly after the death of their only child, and as Alice thinks of what she would say to her husband if he were there, the story is told. A much more fictional character, Kristin, also tells her own story. Kristin is an artist specializing in the restoration of oil paintings, working for an art dealer in Rome, and later finding shelter on Alice’s farm. You will read about the theft of Italian art by the Nazi’s and the Monuments Men of the US forces who attempted to locate, and protect, and then repatriate works of art plundered during the war.

The American writer David Leavitt reviewed Restoration for the Sunday New York Times and was brave enough to express his own sense of outrage about the way in which Olaf Olafsson used the life of Iris Origo in his novel. It may be that some of those who read Restoration will be intrigued enough to want to read further about the life of Iris Origo and if they do, they will discover the story of a remarkable woman and a fascinating time in the history of Italy.

The link to David Leavitt’s review is

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