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: The Pretender’s Lady, by Alan Gold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pretenders_lady“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” So wrote the famous diarist and biographer James Boswell of his compatriot Flora MacDonald, the never-to-be-forgotten heroine of Scotland, for her single-handed role in the perilous escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from the clutches of the rampaging English.

What a woman. Born 1722 in the Scottish Hebrides, her life is well documented. Her passion for a Scotland free from the iron grip of the English led her into many adventures and many troubles – not just risking her life to save the Prince, but also spending time locked up in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. In the 1770s, she lived for a time in North Carolina with her husband and children, only to be caught up in the War of Independence, and then surviving a raid by pirates on the return journey to Scotland. By any account she was an extraordinary woman, and her legendary place in Scottish history is well deserved. And hardly surprising either that there is a mystique and aura about her, that continually fuels the fires of independence, resilience and fierceness so part of the the Scottish identity.

In this novel, the Australian author has taken the bones of Flora’s life and created a rollicking good read that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and not just those of Scottish descent or can lay claim to being descended from a MacDonald of the island of South Uist of the Outer Hebrides. She will be forever known as the saviour of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, and this is the central narrative of the story. Plus what would a good historical novel be without a bit of romance and bodice ripping in the Scottish highlands surrounded by heather and blustery winds? The background to all this however is just as important to the story. The author has thoroughly researched the history of the time – King George II, his son the Duke of Cumberland whose army famously defeated Charlie at Culloden in 1846 (later known as the Butcher Cumberland for his murderous treatment of the Scottish after this uprising), Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, the American War of Independence – and tells it in very rich and exciting detail.

Comparisons of the author’s writing style have been made with Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) and Alison Weir who both write historical novels from the view point of key characters. As a result, fact is used as the starter for the story, but is not necessarily 100% factual in its content. The key word here, emblazoned on the front cover of such books is ‘a novel’. A great starting point for further research and reading.

For me, the key point of such historical novels, is that we learn so much – these books are page turners, they draw us in, real people and real events become vivid in our imaginations, history comes alive. And more importantly, these novels provide background to the nature of the world we live in now. For example, why did thousands leave Scotland from the mid-18th century onwards for the greener pastures of unknown lands in America, Canada, and New Zealand? Aside from the weather…

This is a terrific story, well told, great characters both good and bad, and in the light of the referendum that took place last year for Scottish independence, very timely. The relationship between the two nations may be cordial now, but it has not always been so, in fact many times over the centuries completely the opposite. Such a story makes me very proud of my Scottish heritage, and has sparked a wish to go to the Hebrides. My only criticism? Some pictures of Flora and Charlie would not have gone amiss, and a couple of maps would also have helped greatly in conjuring up images of the intrepid journey that Flora and her prince made.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Pretender’s Lady
by Alan Gold
Published by Yucca Press
ISBN 9781631580482

Book Review: Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Some Luck is a vast novel, rivalling the imaginative scale of Game of Thrones, but rather cv_some_luckthan occupying a fictional realm, Smiley sets her story over 33 significant years in the history of the USA.

I was fascinated by the premise of the book – to show how the USA was formed over a century, based on the fate of one family. Smiley has planned three volumes; Some Luck is the first in the series. The novel opens in rural Iowa; a newlywed couple are just beginning their family, and the book starts with the voice of the patriarch, Walter. It is 1920, Walter is 25, and has recently purchased his own land; he is proud of his purchase, but uncertain of how wise land ownership will turn out to be.

The story that follows takes the reader through the modernisation of farming in Iowa so specifically and with such attention to detail that I found myself wishing the book was set in New Zealand so I had closer connections with the setting. As Walter’s children grow up and move across the States, and the world during wartime, we get to know the political history, and experience the evolving fashions, city life, and the growth of suburbia in America. Each chapter spans one year.

Some Luck is told from multiple character viewpoints, including those of babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, which are often very accurate. One line in particular stuck with me, ‘It was beyond Frank to understand why he sometimes did the very thing he was told not to do. It seemed like once they told him not to do it – once they said it and put it in his mind – then what else was there to do?’ I recognise that entirely from my own children’s behaviour.

Each of Walter and wife Rosanna’s children have their own strong and distinct personalities, covering all points on the spectrum. Across the timeline of the novel their children become adults, marry and have children of their own.

The positive effect of the constantly shifting point of view is that we got to know more than just one story – by the end of the book, there are nine narrators. I found it easy to keep the characters separate as their personalities were distinct, but sometimes it was hard to care for each of them equally. Smiley follows the most fascinating character through each chapter she writes; in the case of war-time, this was of course the character who went to war; in the case of the cold war, likewise the spies and later the commies got a period of narration. The one character I finished the novel without feeling I knew was Rosanna, Walter’s Wife, the matriarch of the family. I found out more about Rosanna from her daughters’ observations of her rather than from her own narrative voice, and the only time I felt like I was really there with her was at the end of the book.

Some Luck is certain to be admired by a broad and diverse audience, and I look forward to the second in the series.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447275619

Book Review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is an interesting book. The setting and story are fascinating. This book is set in cv_the_miniaturist17th-century Amsterdam – a compact city that is dominated by canals, the constant threat of flooding, and a secretive society where everyone knows your business.

Jessie Burton’s book was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s real cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This ornate miniature house becomes a central character in this book. The inanimate objects that are created by the mysterious Miniaturist are central and ever present to the story that unfolds. The only other factual aspect to this story is the main character’s name. Petronella, or Nella as she describes herself, is a young bride arriving in Amsterdam from rural Holland. Her family have arrange for her to marry a man, more than twice her age, who leads a secretive life on the seas as a trader, and in Amsterdam as a privileged (and rich) merchant.

I struggled to get into this book at first, but eventually the mysterious characters, atmosphere, and building and suspenseful climax kept me going. Amsterdam at the time, and possibly even now, in the city where people live in close proximity, where neighbours find it easy to peer into front room windows. In fact, the front rooms are designed for such a purpose. In a world so open, people crave for privacy. And in this 17th-century Amsterdam, the teenage bride struggles to learn all of the secrets the city and the family she has joined hold dear. In fact, her fragmented experiences are reflected in the ever present but mostly absent Miniaturist.

This book takes the reader to an utterly believable world and you become immersed in that world. It’s a slightly unusual tale, but on reflection probably quite likely to have occurred in that time period. It is an original and atmospheric story (the book is set in the dark wet winter months, and at times you feel the dampness pervade your thoughts), with a fabulous mix of suspense, love and loss.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250920

Book Review: The Signature of all Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book is available in bookstores now.

Alma Whittaker is born into a brand new century and into a cv_the_signature_of_all_things_PBwealthy Pennsylvanian family.  Her father is a gruff, rough, self-made man who made his fortune in the 1700’s travelling the world collecting plant specimens upon which he founds a company selling medical “cures” to an eager public. Although botany was more a means to a wealthy end for her father, Alma’s thirst for learning leads to a real passion for the natural world.  She dedicates her life to finding out everything there is to know about the world in general and mosses in particular; a quest which takes her to Tahiti, Amsterdam, and beyond, and sees her meet a fascinating array of people from missionaries to scientists to abolitionists.

The story also takes us back to Alma’s father’s adventures: For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world … and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time… How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again.  For it was no more common in 1800 that it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting – although perhaps not noble…

Henry’s back story is indeed interesting, particularly, for New Zealand readers, his time as a crew man on Captain Cook’s last voyage. Henry is the centre of Alma’s universe – both literally and figuratively. He is the sun to her shooting star, as one drunken party scene in Alma’s childhood evocatively illustrates. Theirs is a complicated and powerful relationship.

Forget any preconceptions you may have moss_garden_japanabout Elizabeth Gilbert’s work based on her more famous best-seller Eat, Pray, Love and its somewhat schmaltzy movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts (although, in fairness, the book was actually very well-written and done quite a disservice by the film version). Eat, Pray, Love, Gilberts’ account of her own experiences as a recent divorcée travelling the world in search of love and the meaning of life, was non-fiction that read like fiction. By comparison, The Signature of All Things is fiction that has been so thoroughly researched, with such “real” characters and botanical descriptions that it reads like almost like non-fiction. Even though I logically knew that Alma was purely fictional, I found myself constantly wanting to google her to find out more about her botanical discoveries and accomplishments. You certainly won’t look at moss the same way again.

This is a big book – in length (499 pages), ideas, and time period (it covers a span of 123 years).  It is perfect for reading during your summer holidays when you can dedicate a decent amount of time to losing yourself in its pages.  Read it lying in the shade of a native New Zealand tree – Alma would approve.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408850114

The Summer Reading Catalogue: Fiction

Our Summer Reading Catalogue is hot off the press. The guide arrived in fourteen great Indie bookstores a couple of days ago. But I know not all of our readers will see a physical copy of this lovely catalogue, so I am going to give a summary of what we are recommending for readers this Christmas. It might help you solve a few gift ideas!

Poppies NZ Summer Cat 13_FictionFiction features include Longbourn by Jo Baker, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Barracuda by Christos Tsolkias and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Each of these titles are either proven sellers or by very popular authors who we expect to carry on selling through the holiday period. We have reviewed Longbourn and The Goldfinch, keep posted for our review of Barracuda, and if you haven’t yet read a review of The Luminaries, The Guardian is a good place to start. (If you haven’t got a copy, or you know somebody who doesn’t, do get a copy – it is the most wonderful and readable literary masterpiece I have encountered all year). P.S. It won the Booker Prize.

If you are after a bit of history, whether pleasant or unpleasant, you could do worse than trying out 1920’s Australia with Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough,war-torn 1940’s France with The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure, 1950’s Afghanistan with And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, or 1960’s Vietnam The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (also nominated for the Man Booker shortlist this year). We have a lot more strong historical fiction on this list, click on the image to look closer at the first page.Poppies NZ Summer Cat 13_titlesforsummer

For fans of the Oprah Book List (that was), there are several  books that will get you lining up: Domestic tragedy with We are Water by Wally Lamb, right and wrong with Eyrie by Tim Winton, 20th century saga with The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and emigration drama Girl of Shadows by Deborah Challinor.

There have been some fantastic New Zealand fiction works published this year, not least New Zealand Post Book of the Year The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. Others by some of our great include The Infinite Air, in which Fiona Kidman tells the story of Jean Batten; The Mannequin Makers, in which Craig Cliff examines past tragedies; The Virgin and the Whale: A Love Story, a story about stories by Carl Nixon; and Wakein which Elizabeth Knox lets her horror-writing shine. Top-selling debut novel The Keeper of Secrets, by Julie Thomas is also a key feature and spent months on the Indie Top 20 chart in 2013.

We also have some fantastic gift ideas featured (not that they aren’t all great gift ideas) – including the gorgeous Everything I need to Know I learned from a Little Golden Book, by Diane Muldrow; and the fascinating and beautiful From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, by Adrian Kinnaird.

To those who say don’t buy books for Christmas – we say pah! There is never a bad time for a book, be it Christmas or just for your own summer reading pleasure. Read and enjoy.

by Sarah Forster

Book review: Anticipation by Tanya Moir

cv_anticipationThis book is in bookshops now.

Remember the 1980s when there was a rash of family sagas spanning generations in a single volume? The books were bricks and the TV series went on for weeks. For me, a lover of historical fiction, this was a great time in TV history that this century’s reality TV simply does not even come close to.

What I loved about those multi-generational family sagas was the passing on of traits, secrets and folklore, and the longer term implications of behaviours. The contemporary family are clearly linked to their ancestry through the story. Of course, we are all linked in this way, but for the most part I suspect we ignore this expect for a few family occasions each year – Christmas, funerals, octagenarian’s birthdays. And, even then, the stories are often limited to two generations.

Tanya Moir has taken the generational family saga and modernised it. Her approach to writing, which is really unique, was a little difficult for me as a reader to comfortably fit into at first, but soon the book enveloped me and I became as attached to the ancestors of Janine (the narrator of this story) herself. And I grew to appreciate Moir’s mastery of her craft.

Janine and her mother have turned researching their family into a lifetime mission. They traverse the globe (from Invercargill to London) to search the archives (white gloves in situ) and visit the substantial homes of their ancestors – they find a fortune made from hard work, and acquired through wily acts; and personal characteristics and flaws that they can tangibly recognise. What consumes both mother and daughter is an apparently genetic neurological disease. And, a good dose of madness.

Janine interweaves her ancestors into her own story, which is one of escape and isolation. She lives on an island (in Auckland) that is surrounded by a tidal waters and mangroves. Hence the eye-catching underwater photograph of mangroves on cover of the book. But the mangroves are sort of a metaphor (for me at least) of how this story unfolds – mangroves are hardy plants growing in the tidal estuaries; their branches are far reaching and convoluted; new roots and branches keeping popping up all over the place; and the plant (not unlike this family) has to survive the ever-changing tides.

It’s obvious really when you think about it, although I guess I had not before now, that when anyone researches their ancestry, a certain dose of fiction comes into play. Deeds, documents and photographs only provide the skeleton of the story. The rest needs to be filled in. And how well this is filled in determines just how interesting ones’s ancestry is. I guess this is the difference between a researcher and storyteller. And Janine (or perhaps more correctly Tanya) is a great story teller. Her story is peppered with scandal, love, sadness, despair and it all remains believable. This could be your family or mine, but it is definitely Janines’s story and she is very lucky to have Tanya Moir tell it for her. Very lucky indeed.

Is it obvious that I loved this book? I hope so.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

by Tanya Moir
Published by Vintage New Zealand
ISBN  9781775532019