Like Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, Dominic Smith’s latest novel reads like a true story. The layering of detail, the specific references to places, people and paintings, make it seem like a real-life account. As a work of fiction, it is completely believable. Like the Kirsty Gunn fans who go to Scotland in search of ‘The Grey House,’ believing it to be real, it is easy to imagine fans of this novel heading to the Rijksmuseum expecting to see a de Vos.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is pacy and complex, intertwining the hard, seventeeth century life of painter Sara de Vos and her family with two phases of a crime-cum-love story, featuring Marty de Groot and Ellie Shipley, in 1950s New York and early 21st century Sydney.
This complex novel is skilfully executed by Smith, and it never seems contrived or over-thought. Marty owns the only known painting by de Vos, and the link between the Netherlands and current day New York is plainly shown. A young Ellie secretly creates a second version of the painting that hangs over Marty’s’s bed, although she knows the risks, and sets in train a sequence of events that will only fully play out fifty years later. Smith’s chapters jump between the three times and three voices – Sara, Marty and Ellie – as the story is revealed.
Part of the integrity of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is that the world it shows us is not that uncommon. Who hasn’t seen or read a newspaper article about fine art forgery? A previously unknown painting by a famous artist is ‘discovered’ in an attic, or a museum, or some recently deceased elderly aunt’s bedroom. Experts argue, technicians analyse the paint, the frame, the nails, and even x-ray it, and curators sweat their reputations.
What lifts Smith’s novel beyond a forger’s tale is the way he boldly jumps back not only to Sara’s life as a female painter in seventeenth century Holland, but also to uber-cool fifties New York, as well as showing us behind the scenes of today’s art world.
Women who wanted to paint in Holland in the 1600s faced many barriers. A casual Google search quickly reveals several who faced down the establishment to join one of the St Luke’s guilds, and whose known output consists of few works or, in the case of Sara van Baalbergen (who joined a guild in 1631, the same year as the fictional Sara de Vos) none. These are exactly the kind of artists whose paintings it is easy to imagine hanging, unknown to the outside world, on the walls of a Dutch family in Amsterdam or New York. They are also the kind of artists forgers must be most tempted to exploit, with few or no benchmarks against which their work can be assessed.
As the book progresses the events in each chapter draw closer to each other, and it becomes a straight-up page turner. How things will turn out is not obvious, either for Ellie, Marty or Sara, until the very end.
There aren’t really any twists, and that’s how it should be. The story is complex enough, emotional enough and detailed enough to stand on its own two feet. Smith perhaps, on occasion, oversteps the mark when drawing together the different strands. It is not that these links are not credible, just unnecessary. But alongside the big, emotional, centuries-spanning tale, he can be forgiven a minor indulgence or two.
I thought I wouldn’t like The Last Painting of Sara de Vos because I’m not a big fan of showing the reader people and events outside the main character’s point of view. But Smith does a great job of making Sara and Marty fully complementary to Ellie, whose story it really is, and once I’d started I couldn’t put it down.
Reviewed by C P Howe
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
by Dominic Smith
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 74343 995 1