Book Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith


cv_the_last_painting_of_sarah_de_vosLike 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

Book Review: Merciless Gods, by Christos Tsolkias

Available in bookstores nationwide.

I found Merciless Gods a challenging read, perhaps the most cv_merciless_godschallenging since American Psycho twenty-five years ago. It doesn’t have the relentless violence of Easton Ellis’s breakthrough novel – although it has its fair share – but in some ways that makes it all the more chilling.

Casual, unpleasant and unsatisfying sex and drugs dominate pretty much all fifteen stories in this collection. By the time you get to the last three – the linked Porn 1, Porn 2 and Porn 3 – there are few surprises for the reader. It becomes an endurance test, but knowing where we’re going to end up doesn’t make it any less compelling.

The stories often show professionals, in their twenties or thirties, reasonably successful but almost always with a connection to a darker life. A former lover, now dead from AIDS or drugs; a brother, sister, spouse or parent they do not care about or care to acknowledge; a terrible secret, disclosed twenty years ago, now reflected on with sadness and regret at all that might have been, had it remained unsaid. These dysfunctional, grimy and dislikable people, and the situations they find themselves in, seem wholly credible in Tsiolkas’ hands.

Early in the first story, ‘Merciless Gods’, at a dinner party after the wine has been drunk, the ‘exquisite’ food eaten, and the drugs taken, and before everything falls apart as we already know it will, the narrator says, ‘Conceited though it might sound, we did believe ourselves to be special, that we stood apart from the common herd of twenty-somethings…we had not yet discovered that we were as mundane and trivial as everyone else.’

I found this sentence powerful and, as a signal of what is to come in the next fourteen stories, it couldn’t be better. In this book people who wanted more out of life – for some, a new life in the lucky country – out of love, or out of sex and drugs, are always disappointed.

The book has a strong urban Australian feel, and specifically a Melbourne feel. Whether the city is mentioned by name, as it is several times, or implied – some of the characters work for a successful, expanding travel guide publisher – the sense of the boom times of the 1990s and the 2000s, of people with money to spend, and the hollowness that follows after the realisation that for all the sex and drugs and drink you’re left with very little, is palpable. Tsiolkas takes us to other Australian cities as well. Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, as well as the outback, but always there is grime and grit and disappointment.

Other themes? The racism felt by both immigrants and indigenous Australians; everyone smokes, all the time; and there is a lot of sex, mostly between men, often unsatisfactory. Tsiolkas even includes what could, I suppose, technically be called incest, but he manages to make it seem acceptable in the context of the story. Only after I finished reading did I think, ‘did he really write that?’

There may be redemption in at least some of the stories, but you have to look hard to find it. They tend to leave you either desolate at the physical, emotional, or moral state of the characters, or ignorant about how things turn out for them. There are moments of humour – the reaction of a father to an accidentally viewed sex tape featuring his son and his male lover, for example – which provide light relief amongst the angst. And occasionally, as in ‘Sticks, Stones’, things don’t descend entirely into despair, although as the story unfolds there is always that possibility.

The stories in Merciless Gods are hard to stomach at times, and the world they show us isn’t attractive, but the truths they tell are real enough. Did any of us know people like this? Were they descending into depravity while we watched from the sidelines?

Long after you’ve finished reading Merciless Gods, you’ll still feel slightly grubby, and you’ll recall the occasions when but for good, or perhaps accidental, choices, you might have ended up like one of Tsolkias’ characters.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Merciless Gods
by Christos Tsiolkas
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76011 2240


Book Review: In the Approaches, by Nicola Barker

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Nicola Barker’s tenth novel is a rollicking, socv_in_the_approachesmetimes distasteful, often rule-breaking, four hundred and ninety-seven pages of slightly unhinged but extremely entertaining storytelling. Religion, sex, murder, terrorism, a parrot and a mynah bird, and even a character who interacts with the author, come flying off the pages in a full-on assault on your reading sensibilities.

Each short chapter in In the Approaches is titled with the name of either Mr Franklin D Huff, Miss Carla Hahn, Mr Clifford Bickerton, or the parrot, Teobaldo, and each chapter is told from their point of view in the first person. Yes, that includes the parrot. A large cast of other people, important in terms of the story, appears and re-appears throughout, but we only see narrative from the four of them. Sometimes events overlap between chapters, and sometimes they don’t, but Barker’s use of the present tense, at least in the early part of the book, gives the story pace and urgency.

There is a sense that only Nicola Barker can get away with something like this. Barker has said in interviews she doesn’t set much store on editing and rewriting, that there’s a lot to be said for keeping the thoughts and sentences that emerge first. She uses italics, spaces, idiosyncratic formatting (new speech marks always get a new line and no paragraph indent, indicating they are part of the same paragraph – or are they?) CAPITALISATION, ums and uhs and ahs, (brackets all over the place (and sometimes used in multiples)) and especially…the use of…of…repetition and ellipses…as if, uh, the thoughts…the thoughts were just, ah, tumbling…um, tumbling out.

Readers have no choice with recent Nicola Barker novels. The Yips was the same, as was Behindlings. You just have to go with it and, if you do, you’ll be rewarded. Read it aloud and see just how closely it resembles speech and thought. Put yourself fully in the shoes (and saunas) of the characters and you’ll live their crazy stories as if you were there.

Is Barker susceptible to cliché? Not written cliché, at least not noticeably, but characters? I’d have to say yes. The Irish priest, or is he a terrorist? The crippled child. The solitary woman looking for love. The talking parrot. The thing with a Nicola Barker novel is, would it really be a Nicola Barker novel without such characters? When you’re deep into a chapter, reading the thoughts, pauses and interactions in the first person, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Its only later you might think, really? Did she really have to be so extreme?

Barker carries it all off with a huge amount of confidence. Who else could create a story where the wonderfully named Mr Franklin D Huff and Miss Carla Hahn feud and, possibly, fall in love while he investigates a thirteen year old murder (or was it?) using a picture diary made by Huff’s recently deceased ex-wife, that also features a short-armed saint-like half-Aboriginal thalidomide child called Orla Nor Cleary, a diabetic dog, a dead shark under the bed, a landslide, a mystical smell of eucalyptus, and a seemingly inexhaustible parade of other tragi-comic images?

The humour is laugh out loud, and sometimes slapstick, and will certainly strain the tolerance of the politically correct. The scene where Shimmy (a old, grumpy Jewish man, and Carla’s father) finds Carla stuck on top of a fence was painful in more ways than one.

There are frustrations. The parrot and mynah birds perhaps have one or two chapters too many dedicated to them. Clifford Bickerton’s interactions with the author, and his knowledge of her work, perhaps go too far. It is as if Barker recognises she’s pushed us to the brink of our willingness to indulge her, and she doesn’t give a damn so she’s going to push us even further. Let Bickerton call her a ‘useless author cow,’ and see if the readers agree. There is an unfathomable – to me, anyway – shift from first person present to first person past about half way through. Has Barker put it in just to annoy the people who notice such things? (And for those who don’t notice it, she has Clifford Bickerton point it out, scathingly, as authorial incompetency.)

You need a strong constitution to digest a Nicola Barker novel. They are in many ways – the characters, the plot, the number of words – larger than life. Whether you love it, hate it or simply don’t get it, it is unlikely you will ever forget In The Approaches.

Reviewed by C P Howe

In The Approaches
by Nicola Barker
Published by Fourth Estate, June 2014
ISBN 9780007583744


Book Review: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, by Joel Dicker

Available in bookstores nationwide. cv_the_truth_about_the_harry_quebert_affair

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is Swiss author Joel Dicker’s first novel. Written in French, the rights have already been sold for translation into over thirty languages, and glowing reviews are coming in from all over the world. This one, however, won’t fall into the glowing category.

While I enjoyed the book well enough, it felt sometimes like I was being hit over the head with it. When I tell you its 4cm thick and weighs about a kilo, you’ll understand what I mean.

Dicker breaks a few rules with his story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just look at what Eleanor Catton did with The Luminaries for an example of an author self-imposing multiple constraints on herself while using a style not seen for a century, but who still delivered a sublime read.

In Harry Quebert, Dicker teases the reader with the promise of a structural innovation, a take-your-breath-away twist, or a revelation of unreliable narration. When, towards the end, it becomes clear that none of these will be delivered, the feeling is one of exasperation and disappointment. The three main sections are exactly what they say they are. The little introductions by Harry are nothing more than little introductions. The extracts from the book within the book are simply extracts. Sub-sections are dated and timed so we know exactly what is going on, with whom, and when. Dicker may have thought he was being exceedingly clever to show his narrator, Marcus Goldman, telling us what happened and then including extracts from his book-within-a-book that also tell us what happened, but it soon becomes tedious when you realise that’s all he’s doing.

The characters have a similar lack of subtlety. The cop who instantly trusts Goldman and works together with him. The waitress who marries the wrong man. The tormented father of Harry’s under-age muse, Nola. The hideously disfigured – and therefore immediately suspected – handyman. And so on. Even the symmetry between Harry and Marcus isn’t enough. Marcus himself is the only one who has a slightly interesting and somewhat darker background, but does that result in a twist, a degree of unreliability or a nasty streak? No it does not. Will he turn out to be an anti-hero? Highly unlikely.
The truth is that The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair is neither the book-within-a-book Goldman wrote first (The Harry Quebert Affair), or the revised version. It’s a hotch-potch of material that that we’re supposed to believe has been put together by Goldman. But why? Who is Goldman talking to? Are the sections where Goldman isn’t present supposed to be his fictional versions of events? Or does Dicker shift to the omniscient point of view for those sections? An inconsistent approach to the narrative lets the book down.

This book is already a publishing juggernaut, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown and J K Rowling, Dicker has written a story that fascinates people and draws them in, forces them to turn the pages to see what’s going to happen next. What Dicker didn’t need to do was try and dress it up in a complex structure to somehow give it some ‘literary’ kudos. When Ian McEwan or Marisha Pessl mess with our minds by putting things on the page that are not what they seem, it means something to the story. Dicker’s constructions do not; he might as well have simply told the story straight.

It is possible that the lack of subtlety comes partly from the translation. Unless you happen to be fluent in French, and can muster the strength to read it again, you’ll never know. But his characters are sufficiently stereotypical that I think I can safely say they’d appear the same whatever the language.

You could do a lot worse that read The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair if you’re after a book with literary pretensions, entertainment without requiring a great deal of thought, and a decent word count. The writer as a crime-solving hero? Here he is. If a half-decent screenwriter and director can get their hands on it, it will undoubtedly make a better movie than it does a novel. Goldman follows the classic hero’s journey so closely it’s easy to imagine Dicker writing with his copy of Christopher Vogler open beside him. I just wish he hadn’t tried to be so clever with the structure.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair
by Joel Dicker
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857053107

Book review: The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook

This book is available in bookstores now.

Have you ever thought about what happens after acv_the_aftermath war in which you were on the losing side? Specifically, when your country was invaded and your side lost? For some, it is unimaginable. For others, it will be all too real. One of the strengths of Rhidian Brook’s third novel, The Aftermath, is the way that in this era of global conflict, with refugees and reconstruction missions so constantly in the news, a story set sixty years ago will resonate with people going through, or at least observing, the same thing going on today.

The Aftermath is set largely in Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the second world war. Brook acknowledges inspiration from his grandfather, who requisitioned a house there in 1946, and he constructs a story that shows the rebuilding of post-war lives in a way that is both fascinating and horrifying. His website says the book is being translated into twenty-three languages. Assuming one of those languages is German its audience there will, perhaps, react with more emotion than any other.


Hamburg post-WW2

Those who remember what it was like in Europe in the post-war years are rapidly dwindling in number. My own grandparents, gone now, were in their late teens and early twenties in 1939-1945. My parents were both war babies, and grew up in a time of ration books and austerity. But those days were over by the time they were in their teens, and their remembered youth was more milk bars and mods, Bill Haley and Elvis, motorbikes and day trips to Clacton-on-Sea.

Rhidian Brook’s novel shows us that immediate post-war austerity, from the perspective of both the British who were sent to help Germany rebuild, as well as the Germans who survived. Can you imagine the reaction of the British as their government sent food, supplies and manpower to a country that was, last month, still killing their young men, while children at home went hungry? Can you imagine what it was like to have all semblance of civilisation stripped away – your mayor, your government, your everything – before surrender, and now be faced with the very soldiers who were killing your families arriving and throwing you out of your house?

Once the emotion of the events that frame the novel settle down, the story is somewhat more conventional. The novel hinges on the decision by Lewis Morgan, a British Army Colonel who is allocated a substantial and beautiful house next to the Elbe in Hamburg, to allow the Luberts, whose house it is, to remain living there alongside him and his family. This is highly unusual, and draws concern and criticism from Lewis’s fellow officers, but he insists that to do otherwise would be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve – the rehabilitation of a people and the rebuilding of a country.

It seems almost inevitable that the attention of Rachael, Lewis’s wife, is drawn away from the reserved, English Army officer, always busy with his important work, towards the interesting, cultured and strong-minded Lubert, whose own wife was killed in the war. After all, Lewis is hardly ever home. Lewis and Rachael had their own wartime tragedy which they’ve never come to terms with. And, for his part, Lewis is attracted to the intelligent, interesting women working for the government, helping rebuild a conquered country. Multi-lingual, well read and bright-eyed, they tempt him.

Around these intensely personal and emotional interactions, there is the horrific backdrop of a devastated nation. A city like Hamburg, especially, with its important port, was flattened. There were no services, no government, no jobs. Children roamed the streets scavenging food and cigarettes. Ordinary German men and women were demoralised, destroyed. Brook carefully lets us know that the world is not black and white. Some British army officers are coarse, corrupt and cruel. The Allies were at war with Germany, not all Germans. There are people on both sides who wish the war had never happened, and those on both sides who wish it hadn’t ended. And, in the background, there are the international tensions that led to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

The Aftermath, for all its darkness, is a story of hope and it is that which perhaps makes it a lesser novel than it could have been. Its strength is that it shows us a time and place few can remember and few have written about, at least in fiction. It reminds us that winning and losing in war is a relative concept. To be on the losing side – if you survived – is to be denied your very existence and identity, and to be the victor brings extraordinary responsibilities towards the same people who were, yesterday, your mortal enemies.

The book’s weakness is to pick, as it reaches its conclusion, a slice of that time and place where humanity, compassion and good fortune triumph. It is not that the books ends on a happy note – everyone here is damaged beyond repair – but I couldn’t help but think that for most of the people who found themselves in these kinds of circumstances, in the late 1940s, in places like Hamburg or Bonn or Frankfurt, things ended less well.

I believe The Aftermath would have been even stronger with a less redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, deeply moving and makes a very strong addition to the collection of novels – by the likes of Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, John le Carre and William Boyd – about the wars and related events that shaped 20th century Europe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Aftermath
by Rhidian Brook
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780670921126

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

In the early 1960s the movie Cleopatra was being cv_beautiful_ruinsfilmed in Rome. It remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It, and the fallout from the high-profile affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during shooting, forms the backdrop to Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

Beautiful Ruins was first published in 2012 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. The New Zealand edition, published by Penguin, has a bold, retro-coloured photo montage with plenty of accolades on both front and back covers. It can’t, therefore be read without a high degree of expectation. With a quote on the front from Nick Hornby that says, ‘Beautiful Ruins is a novel unlike any other you’re likely to read this year,’ the bar is set high. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jess Walter’s novel is a complex, emotional and moving story. The structure is imaginative and unconventional, but not necessarily ground-breaking. We get multiple points of view, often in the same chapter, but Walter’s assured prose leaves us in no doubt as to which character we are with at any given time. There are extracts from books, scripts and unpublished memoirs, sometimes presented as whole chapters, sometimes in the middle of chapters. The reader has to trust that while, moments ago, the prose was a conventional third person narrative in modern day Los Angeles, and now is an account of a treacherous mountain crossing in the 1800s, the author is doing it for a reason that will be revealed when he’s good and ready.

I was reminded me, in a way, of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit fromcv_a_visit_from_the_goon_squad the Goon Squad, where the form of each chapter can be quite different but works together as a whole. This kind of writing, this kind of structure, can seem contrived and artificial and such criticism has certainly been levelled at Egan and Walter. This kind of approach is successful only when each component has a part to play, and when the reader doesn’t fully realise what those parts are, and how they all fit together, until the end. This is, of course, true with all fiction. Every sentence must do its job. When an author plays around with form – including scripts, letters, or even powerpoint presentations in the case of Egan – then the form itself must do something for the story, as well as the content. Walter has pulled this off brilliantly in Beautiful Ruins.

At the heart of Beautiful Ruins is a love story between an obscure American actress and a young Italian student forced to stay in his remote coastal village after his father dies. Real, famous people rub shoulders and more with Walter’s fictional creations, and the background is boldly coloured with the fallout of the second world war, as well as Hollywood and the Burton-Taylor mythology. Walter spans five decades of the lives that were touched by those ‘beautiful ruins’ – the term comes from a real interview with Burton – and in doing so he tells a story that can’t fail to touch the reader.

In other hands such a story could have turned to schmaltz, but Walter shows incredible control of emotion and time, and does it in a way that makes this novel impossible to put down. While some may regard the ending as a little too neat, it is hard to see how it Walter could have gone any other way.

I can only start to imagine the time it took to write and re-write, the thinking, mapping and exploration it took to weave together this story so that, in the end, it all makes sense. Some of the connections, revealed without any tricksy manoeuvres or contrived circumstances, take your breath away. The cast of characters is large, but they are all there for a reason. It took Walter fifteen years to write this book – or, as he says in the author interview included in this edition, what he means is he ‘…managed to squeeze in two or three years of writing during fifteen years of drinking and self-loathing.’

Having paused for breath, I went on to read the author interviews a couple of weeks after finishing Beautiful Ruins. I came away with such huge admiration and respect for Jess Walter that I went straight out and bought Tumbled Graves, his first novel, and I intend to work my way through his other four books as soon as I can.

Reviewed by C P Howe

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780 670922659