Book Review: The art of deception

A novel pairs the scion of a Nazi family with a social-climbing Jew for an art caper in 1950s London.

London in the 1950s is the setting for a gripping postwar tale of deception (photo credit: CHALMERS BUTTERFIELD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
London in the 1950s is the setting for a gripping postwar tale of deception
John Steinberg’s novel Blue Skies over Berlin is a compact work about deception and reconciling with one’s past. It chronicles the life of Charlotte Brown, a woman faced with deception on many levels: self-deception, the deception of others and global deception, all set elegantly in post-World War II Europe.
Despite the title, the plot takes place almost entirely in London. As a sprightly new arrival, Charlotte lands a plush job at the National Gallery. The catch is that Brown is actually Eva Schlessinger from Berlin, the scion of a Nazi family. Once in London, she erases every trace of her German past.
Eva spent most of the war unharmed. As Europe burned, Eva studied art. The greatest sacrifice she made was forgoing her favorite chocolate biscuits. Similarly, she is strangely unaware of the atrocities being committed – including by her own family. The extent of her knowledge of the purging of Germany’s Jews, for example, is that her childhood neighbor, a Jew, left their building one day and never returned.
As the war ends, Eva’s life turns sour. Her brother and beloved father die, and her mother is committed to a mental institution. After a brief stint in Switzerland, she moves to London as Charlotte Brown. So begins her new life.
It is in her new incarnation that Charlotte meets Bernard Moss from Mayfair, a.k.a. Berel Moscovitch from the East End, a good-hearted but misguided businessman.
In Bernard, Steinberg fashions the quintessential social-climbing Jew. Bernard is willing to do anything to assimilate and please his non-Jewish counterparts, even if it means delving into illicit dealings. That fateful meeting changes Charlotte’s life. Bernard wines and dines her to persuade her to manage a new gallery he is about to open.
The older man introduces Charlotte to London’s high society of the 1950s and his upstanding yet unscrupulous friends.
The glitter of that world wears off quickly as Bernard drags her into an art laundering scheme involving works stolen from Jews during the war. In parallel, the two begin a love affair. The tension between Bernard and Charlotte, so different in their backgrounds, experiences and outlooks, is intriguing. It’s unclear whether Bernard truly loves her or whether he wants her first and foremost as a shiksa trophy, proof to his working-class family that he has made it.
Charlotte, for her part, loves him, but she sees him more as a father figure than a lover. Alone in the world, she needs guidance and protection. In Bernard, she finds that, if temporarily. When Bernard’s so-called friends conspire his financial demise, Charlotte begins to understand how deeply they are both entwined in a complex international crime network.
The first part of the book contains engaging details about postwar London. In an opening scene, Charlotte passes by bombed-out buildings on the way to her first meeting with Bernard. She becomes nostalgic for her hometown, the one she can only commune with in her heart. In this way, the author does a nice job of turning the war into one of the novel’s characters, weighing heavy on the protagonist and those around her.
The second part of the book highlights Charlotte’s relationship with Lillian, a vivacious and distressed widow. The two, both alone, form an unlikely family unit, together with Lillian’s volatile daughter, Elizabeth. Lillian, too, has secrets, and this adds additional layers to the growing web of deception in Charlotte’s life.
As the years pass, Charlotte tries to maintain a calm and uneventful life.
She embarks on a fulfilling career as an art teacher. Yet the art heist follows her everywhere. Ultimately, it forces her to come to terms with her past.
Charlotte is a well-developed character, solitary and shockingly naive. Steinberg skillfully guides the reader deep into her head. Her identity conflict is patent throughout the novel. In one scene, Bernard’s cronies discuss their gratitude for the defeat of “the Krauts.”
Charlotte panics. “Charlotte, convinced that everyone is staring at her, felt herself blushing. What was she supposed to do? The truth was that she had buried her past and only thought of herself as one of the Swiss.”
Complementing the dramatic interludes are lovely descriptions of the posh venues Charlotte frequents with Bernard and his colorful crowd, among others.
Overall, Blue Skies over Berlin is an interesting take on art laundering and the aftermath of World War II. What it lacks is glue. Like Charlotte’s life, the narrative unfolds in a protective haze. Many of the turns of plot are gripping, but the reader experiences them at a distance.
The author leaves a lot to the imagination. (It’s unclear whether that’s intentional or not.) For example, the reader doesn’t understand the essence of Bernard and Charlotte’s relationship. Furthermore, how complicit was Bernard in the art heist? As a result the book’s impact is diminished, and it doesn’t fulfill its potential.