The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
By Dominic Smith
Allen & Unwin, $33, 384 pages, ISBN 9781743439951
There is something mesmerising about the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In Vermeer’s depictions of domestic daily life, for example, there is always a sense of a story under the image, of movement behind the stillness. There is the same quality with this remarkable novel, which is structured as a series of layers and interlaced time periods. It is no accident that one of main characters, Ellie Shipley, is a painter and art restorer who builds up a work and then strips parts away, a reflection of the way this novel works.
There was not really a Golden Age painter called Sara de Vos – Smith (who is Australian but usually lives in the US) knitted the character together from what is known of several female artists of the time. Nevertheless, he gives her a detailed life, with alternating chapters of the book telling her story. It has its share of tragedy: a child lost, a husband who abandons her to escape his debts, a tetchy relationship with the guild that controls the painting business.
Ellie’s connection with de Vos is, at first, her stalled dissertation, as she struggles to maintain a threadbare life in 1950s New York, partly an escape from her stultifying family in Sydney. Then Sara enters her life in another way, in the shape of an offer to make a forgery of the only known de Vos painting, At the Edge of the Wood, a mysterious and charismatic piece of work.
Woven into this story – and that of Sara in seventeenth-century Holland – is that of Marty de Groot, an over-affluent lawyer whose family have owned the original painting for generations. When he realises that the painting hanging over his bed is a fake he tracks down Ellie, not to get his property back but for his own half-hidden reasons.
Fast-forward to 2000, and Ellie is working at the NSW Art Gallery, where she is given the job of curating a show about women painters of the Dutch Golden Age. And, of course, she finds that the forgery – her dark but beautiful secret – is on its way, and so is the original. With Marty as well, who turns out to have aged into self-aware mellowness, like a varnish gaining its own patina.
Each of these streams has its own dynamic, and each provides pieces that fall into a whole. This tessellated approach to narrative can, if not handled well, become merely confusing and disjointed. But there is never a sense that Smith does not know where he is heading. Indeed, as each story progresses it develops a sense of inevitability. Everything ends in the place where it should be, where it belongs, with the clarity of Vermeer sunlight. And even the surprise at the ending is not, really, a surprise, but the final component of an elegant composition.
Smith brings a great authority to this, whether he is discussing the techniques of artistic forgery or the social details of the Mad Men creatures of Manhattan. But the real core is the cross-era relationship between Sara and Ellie, parallel but intimately connected. It is this which provides the heart of the novel. It is a heart which is warm, and alive, and luminous.