“Work is central to the lives of most people, but it’s seldom given its due in literary fiction. Daniela Murphy’s The Restorer is an exception. Murphy tells two intertwined stories about two intertwined occupations–that of a fourteenth-century fresco painter and that of a twentieth-century fresco restorer who literally uncovers the painter’s secret. In these stories work trumps love, money, and office politics as Murphy takes us behind the scenes–into the workshops and into the offices of those who decide which frescoes will be restored and who will restore them–and enables us to see with new eyes.”
Tim Barker, Photographer
Review of ‘The Restorer’
This small book ( in size but not slight in nature) is an increasingly interesting work. It is also very clever. ‘Interesting’ and ‘clever’ may seem pallid adjectives for enthusiasm but that is deliberate because both reveal themselves incrementally. At the surface the interest is held by the deep knowledge of a field (restoration of frescos in contemporary Italy) where the reader is offered technical understanding unobtrusively, (fascinating it is) and also insight into the political issues that might surround the most obscure discovery in a de-consecrated church. The lonely days of a typical restorer, painstakingly uncovering, and repairing, no matter how cold or cramped among the chill stones becomes the world one enters; the writing compels us to follow, and to sustain, and willingly to abandon our slippers for another day.
So interest turns to fascination, gripped by the enigma of one particular painting, and how (and why) it absorbs the main character. Like any novel wrapped around expertise, this is the gift offered, most generously. But that is only the beginning of interest.
The cleverness in the novels construction lies in mirroring the subject by the structure of the book itself. The uncovering of the past, and its compelling and increasing ‘presence’ is overlaid, as the painting is, by another less meaningful present. Or to put it another way, a present that takes its meaning increasingly from the past, initially unseen, but incrementally uncovered as the work proceeds, and the understanding is shaped by a growing image, compelling to the main character Elfa and increasingly to the wrapt reader. The alternation between the covered past and the uncovering present initially keeps them apart, but as they approach one another they bleed into a joint vibration, where one begins and the other ends no longer matters. What really does matter is the restoration of the Restorer, renewed by her craft mending her fractured love and her life.
Yet even that is a palimpsest over a deeper philosophy, the examination of time itself, causality, and the role of the future in summoning the past towards a present where both past and future collide here and now. As in the best stories there is an immortal truth applicable universally; once this has been experienced it is validated in every life. This, for that reason, is a great novel; touching on deep truth. Where better to set deep truth but in early Renaissance Florence?
I have said nothing of plot. What I loved about this book was the plot was the book, its compulsion played out by a cast of unique characters, each one rich but wholly real and credible, even bad temper was grand. Since I have given so much away what remains is simply to say go keep the company of fierce, voluble, enigmatic, extravagant, duplicitous compassionate people and enjoy finding yourself in a play that might have been the subject for a secular Shakespeare without a court to please. There are a thousand echoes of other myths, a world of monastic privation in bleak midwinter, of hard mouthed and hard nailed contemporaries. There is not a false note, or a contrived conversation; all is of the piece.
The jewel like character of this novel is perfectly matched by the beautiful book, or casket, in which it is to be found. Lucky author to find a publisher worthy of her craft.