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Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos - Dominic Smith (2016)








It has been so long since I finished reading The Last Painting of Sara De Vos that I wondered whether I could give it an adequate review, however it is such a fine novel that I thought I must write about it, even if it’s in a limited way. The Last Painting of Sara De Vos was the final novel read for the library’s book club for 2016 and despite some tough competition it was voted by members as the best book of the year. The novel is certainly a deserving winner, featuring a compelling narrative rich in period detail, with convincing and nuanced characters. Dominic Smith is an Australian writer who has lived for many years in Texas, which is perhaps why he is not that well known in Australia, however I’m sure that this novel will reward him with much more exposure in his native country.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos has three narrative strands, one set in 1950’s New York in which wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, eventually discovers that a beautiful painting by obscure Dutch Golden Age artist Sara de Vos, owned by his family for 300 years, has been swapped for a fake. Both de Groot and the painter of the fake, a young Australian called Ellie Shipley, feature in the sections set during the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia. The third narrative strand is set in seventeenth century Holland and features the artist Sara de Vos, the only female painter admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke’s at the time (de Vos is an imagined painter based on Judith Leyster, one of only 25 female painters accepted into the guild over all). Male artists dominated landscape painting during that era, so there is a mystery surrounding both how the de Vos painting came to be and the details of her life. Smith weaves these narrative strands together beautifully; there is never a moment of incongruity and he evokes each period setting with great authenticity, in particular 1950’s New York and 1630’s Holland.

Perhaps the main strength of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is its great thematic depth, exploring notions of personal identity, the significance of cultural circumstance and the sometimes tragic vicissitudes of life. Both de Vos and Shipley struggle to make headway in male dominated professions and take risks that transform their lives in both negative and positive ways. Notions of authenticity and forgery are given an extra dimension when de Groot, in his efforts to locate his stolen painting, creates an alter-ego; creating a fake self to fool Shipley and in doing so ironically presents a real life counterpoint to her own artistic forgery. In one of the novel’s dry comic turns a party at the de Groots residence features a bunch of ‘Beats for hire’ to liven up proceedings and perhaps provide a distraction for swapping over the paintings. The novel is full of such multilayered detail and nothing is wasted, in particular Smith’s portrayal of the art world, with its odd characters, obscure rivalries and the arcane intensity of artistic technique, a subject Smith researched thoroughly.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is an almost seamless novel in terms of plot and execution, but perhaps its greatest strength is its characters. The parallels drawn between Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley, intentional or otherwise, give both characters added dimensions. Marty de Groot plays a fine supporting role, developing from an entitled and vengeful man into a compassionate and forgiving old man. There are also numerous minor characters that shine in their own way, in particular the idiosyncratic private detective de Groot hires when the police fail him. I’m sure that Smith worked long and hard at piecing together such a well crafted novel, but it doesn’t show at all; in fact he has pulled off that relatively rare feat, he has written a novel that is both complex and subtle, yet is also welcoming and rewarding for the reader, just the perfect read for book clubs really.

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