With her first book for adults, prolific children’s author Kathy Kacer has chosen a very compelling story. Restitution is about Karl Reeser, a member of a prominent Jewish family who had to flee Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The Reesers successfully immigrated to Canada, but in their haste to depart they were forced to leave behind four paintings in the care of an ultimately untrustworthy acquaintance. Karl’s quest to retrieve the paintings nearly 50 years later involved travelling to Communist Czechoslovakia under false pretences, finding help from a wily Canadian diplomat, and hiring an international art smuggler of dubious character.
There is no doubt that the story is fascinating. However, there is a problem with Kacer’s choice of stylistic devices. Instead of recounting the story as straightforward non-fiction, Kacer includes elements of fiction in the narrative, such as interior monologue and dialogue, which attempt to draw attention to the powerful emotions at play. But instead of creating a more engaging tone, this combination of styles results in a book that sits uncomfortably between the two genres. For example, Kacer has characters reading newspapers to each other to provide historical context. This results in scenes that are very wooden.
In addition to difficulties with style, Kacer’s background as a writer for young readers is apparent. There is far too much “telling” and not nearly enough “showing,” with repeated explanations of metaphors that are unnecessary for an adult audience. The fact that there are four paintings and four members of the Reeser family (and how important it is to keep both groups together) does not need to be spelled out several times over the course of the book.
The pace does speed up when the art smuggler reaches Czechoslovakia and makes contact with various characters in his quest to get the paintings out of the country without government interference. Unfortunately, the stylistic awkwardness means the reader has long since become disengaged with the character of Karl Reeser, whose dedication to reclaiming his family’s property deserves a more nuanced retelling.