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

By Siobhan Harvey

Australian author Dominic Smith.
Australian author Dominic Smith.

Novels about painters and paintings have been in vogue recently. Prominent contemporary offerings include Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring and Donna Tart's epic The Goldfinch.

If Australian author Dominic Smith's wonderful fourth novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos follows suit, what it adds to the literary communion with oils is a fresh, feminist portrait of the artist and a nuanced evocation of those who forge works of art.

A triptych, the book is a story in three interconnected parts. Each is connected to the other by a single fictional image, At the Edge of the Wood, produced by a master painter during the Dutch Golden Age.

That the artist in question is a woman - the titular heroine - is in itself remarkable. But through his skilful control of voice and plot, Smith turns this notable snippet of invention into rich narrative by opening up Sara's troubled inspiration for her work and intersecting this with the equally fraught lives of 1950s Upper East Side owner of the piece, Marty, and celebrated Australian art historian, Ellie.

Therein, Smith paints the everyday struggles and gifted creativity of 17th Century Sara with the same attention to detail and verity as he applies to contemporary Ellie; the stunning artistry of both limited by the explicit and implicit social constraints that come with being women.

Not that New York raconteur Marty is a one-dimensional vulgarian. Suave but worrisome, urbane but edgy, he struggles with the same problem faced by painters: surface versus substance. Bereavement, abandonment, poverty, deceit: these themes plague all characters as they try to remain faithful to their art.

Rather than a grandiose meditation on being creative, the many strands of story and character Smith weaves add up to a subtle, sophisticated tale about what it means to be human. The author might be new to me, but given the craft and carefully wrought characters on display in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, I'll be sure to work my way through his previous books and devour his future offerings too.

THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS
(Allen & Unwin, $37)

- Weekend magazine

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