The plot of The Appraisal finds Helena Marsh, an art expert skilled at disguises and unusually adept at killing, trying to authenticate a Titian painting for an elderly art collector named Géza Márton, whose family lost the work of art during the Second World War. Anna Porter’s latest novel combines a number of interesting subjects, but the story too often gets submerged by didactic history lessons and political commentary about Hungary.
As Porter details, Hungarians suffered greatly in the 20th century, and corruption and violence were widespread. After Hungary became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, life did not improve, leading to the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian revolution. Finally, in 1989, democracy returned, and with it, capitalism. Without some sense of this history, readers may find the plot of Porter’s novel challenging.
Marsh is dogged in her efforts by the novel’s other main character, Attila Feher, a former detective trying to eke out a living by working for a man who used to be his underling. The reversal of roles reflects the social jumble that Budapest has become. Power shifts from one corrupt group to another, and the quality of life is determined by whom one knows. Feher is tasked with keeping tabs on Helena, as it turns out that Géza Márton is not the only person who wants the painting. People are ready to pay huge sums and commit murder for it.
The third-person narration shuttles between Helena and Attila; while the latter character is engaging , Helena and the many other characters are not fully realized creations, but rather means to an end. The novel veers too far toward social commentary in its descriptions of the ways human beings mistreat each other. The horror of war is made abundantly clear, and the novel argues that democracy, though preferable to communism or socialism, does not guarantee fairness – the powerful continue to amass possessions and exert control. Even the world of art is tinged with ugliness: Helena’s father was a gifted forger, and art is used in the novel as just another way to dominate others.
The question of appraisal is central to Porter’s narrative. What is a human life worth? What is a painting worth? If readers manage to persevere through the story’s excessive complications and its frequent recourse to bald exposition, they will find it offers an opportunity to consider what is truly valuable in life.