Edition: akanos, 2012
Review number: 1469
Art historian Bill Maguire tells the reader his life story in Johnston's new novel. At least, he narrates a version of his life: he is clearly a constant reviser of material from his journals, and undercuts much of what he says with sardonic footnotes. His story is bound up with that of a rather older man, a painter named Joe Rembrandt, and most of Maguire's story is taken up with Joe's recital of his own life story, told to the young Bill while in the last stages of terminal illness. And in turn, Rembrandt's story is bound up with (fictional) painter Alexander Golden, whose daughter he married. Or perhaps not: it is clear fairly quickly that not only is Bill Maguire an unreliable storyteller, so is Joe Rembrandt, even if he does share an insight into Golden's paintings which Maguire uses to establish his academic reputation.
What unites these characters is a love for (and knowledge of) fine art. Even their involvement in dubious activities - including forgery and possibly, murder, as the front cover puts it - is fuelled by and part of their love for painting. Johnston captures the power of their obsession well, which is particularly useful, as it is of vital importance to the plot, as well as making the characters sympathetic: a forgery (and even a murder) for the love of art is easier to accept than the same crime carried out just to make money.
Rembrandt Sings is not intended to be an action thriller, and is more concerned with the motivation of the forger than anything else. The ending has a nice thriller-style twist to it; if reading the novel, do not skip forward as you would ruin a treat. Having said that, it is also a novel I wished had been longer, a rare object. There is nothing much recorded from Bill's live between the early twenties when his academic career was beginning and the position of senior and respected art historian, a likely candidate for the next head of the Tate gallery, who is looking back to his early days in the art world. Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary would have happened, just a standard academic career path, but more information would have been interesting.
Painting is not really my thing (colour blindness means that I tend to have problems perceiving pictures in the same way as people with normal vision), but I do enjoy fiction about art. I was in fact just starting Michael Gruber's Forgery of Venus as I finished Rembrandt Sings, another novel about art forgery, with a rather different slant on the subject. And I love Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll series, which seem to have finished, unfortunately; they are more traditionally crime stories, and have less convincing forgers than Joe Rembrandt (which is not surprising, as it is not the point of the books). I don't think that, even though music is the art form dearest to me, I would find a musical faker as interesting as the characters in this book, no matter how well done.
Altogether, I found this an interesting and impressive picture of the forger, with a clever twist, though lacking in pace for most of the time. My rating: 7/10.