Portrait of an Unknown Woman: book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

August 4, 2022 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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This is Daniel Silva’s twenty-fifth novel and the 22nd, with Gabriel Allon as the chief protagonist.

Spoiler alert is that he is no longer the chief spy for Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad. This does not preclude him, on a couple of occasions of calling on his former agency to help him resolve the challenge. He also still has access to some of their cutting-edge technology.

Some characters are drawn from previous novels. The story begins with his friend Julian Isherwood who is an art dealer in London and whose father escaped the Nazis! Julian has sold a picture that draws the attention of an elderly woman in France who asks to meet Julian to discuss the picture. On her way to the meeting, she has a road accident which the police think was just an accident, but we discover otherwise.

The picture was attributed to the artist Anthony van Dyck and is known as the Portrait of an Unknown Woman. Imagine Julian’s surprise when he visits the home of the dead woman to see a second painting of the same name and attribution. He calls on the expertise of his friend Gabriel Allon. What follows is a fascinating excursion into the world of the expensive art world and the challenge of sorting fakes from the real world. One of the questions that arise as one reads the book is how the experts distinguish between the original artwork and the exceptionally good fake. And of course, even the experts can be fooled by high-quality fakes, and there is often disagreement between the experts as to which might be the original and which is the fake.

As an aside, Allon has moved to his wife’s hometown of Venice, where her father is the Chief Rabbi. With them are their two young children who have been enrolled in the local secular school- no discussion of why they may not have been enrolled in the Jewish Day School. The wife, Chiara, has begun working as the administrative head of a company specialising in art restoration. He begins the story wandering the streets and canals of Venice as he attempts to bury the ghosts of his previous life.

As Allon tries to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in trying to decide which of the two paintings known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman is the real one. To add to the twists and turns is that both had been sold by the same gallery some 40 years apart- a gallery not known to be totally ethical in its dealings.

This book is a page-turner. It is among his best and well worth the time to read and escape from our own worlds.

Author; Daniel Silva

Publisher Harper 2022

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and as Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.

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