I remember them well. Kimbofo’s excited tweets, as she was reading this novel. Exhorting everyone to go, buy and read it NOW! I obeyed the first two instructions, and then left the book in the TBR for some 18 months. Its International Dublin Literary Award longlistng finally propelling it to the top. The thing is, I haven’t heard a bad thing about it in the intervening time. Neither have I anything negative to say. It really is as good as Kim promised.
Sara de Vos is a fictional artist from the Dutch Golden Age. Following the death of her only child, Kathrijn, she creates At the Edge of the Wood, a melancholy, moody painting, which comes into the possession of the family of Marty de Groot, and remains there for some 300 years. During a dinner party in Manhattan, it is stolen and replaced by a forgery, which has been painted by a young Ph.D student, Eleanor Shipley. Not that she is involved in the theft. Copying and restoring artworks is a legitimate sideline for students like Ellie, but she is so meticulous and obsessed with this commission to copy the painting from a photograph that she realises she is crossing a line, That act is to haunt her for decades. If it ever comes to light, her career as a world-renowned art historian will be ruined.
It is the year 2000 and it looks as though the moment has arrived. Ellie is curating a show at the New Gallery of South Wales and two copies of Sara de Vos’s At the Edge of the Wood are expected any day. Worse still, Marty de Groot is bringing the one in his possession along. Ellie is convinced he is coming to bring her trangressions to light.
Alternating between the three time zones (C17th Holland, Manhattan 1957 and Sydney 2000), Smith weaves an intricate, intelligent and absorbing yarn, with each of the main characters not only being brought vividly to life, but mirroring each other’s experiences over the centuries and decades. Sara De Vos’s hardships are mirrored in the lives of Marty de Groot (lost children) and Ellie (poverty as a student). Whereas Sara and her husband lost their means of income due to the selling of unauthorised paintings (the details of the workings of the Dutch Painters Guild is absolutely fascinating), Ellie’s living is threatened by her youthful act of naïvety. There are further parallels, but to list them here would be giving too much away.
Fascinating too are the technicalites of forging a painting and contemporary methods of uncovering a forgery. There were three mistakes in Ellie’s copy; one of which tipped off Marty de Groot in 1957; the second and third requiring the resources of modern technology to reveal them.
The question is though, if Marty de Groot discovered the theft in 1957, why has he waited until 2000 to confront Ellie? There’s an early reveal that the two of them know each other, and that there is plenty of unfinished business, in particular that involving a certain Jake Alpert, who turns out to be as much of a fake as Ellie Shipley’s painting …
To summarise: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a mystery involving forged paintings, forged identities with layer upon meticulous layer of characterisation and historical detail. With that melancholy painting at the base, there’s also an emotional register of loss, sadness and regret. Perhaps the forged artwork wasn’t the most heinous act in the novel after all.