Tag Archives: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Books of the Year 2017: Part Two

Cover imageJanuary and February boasted six reading treats for me but things were spread a little more thinly over the following three months. March began with what I knew would be a favourite author’s last book. Helen Dunmore’s, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling. Dunmore quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she was gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

April’s favourite is by another writer whose work seems underrated to me. Although longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 was omitted from the shortlist much to my – and many other readers’ – amazement, then it missed the Goldsmiths Prize. It traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fingers firmly crossed that the Costa judges see sense.Cover image

Three books stood out for me in May, the first of which was all about storytelling. Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell sees two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Disoriented and lonely, Marc begins to let slip information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him until they become more real to him than his own predicament. Lowe draws you in with his extraordinarily ambitious structure, frequently pulling the rug from under your feet. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. A very clever, subtle piece of fiction.

I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Duncan Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos when it was first published here in 2016. Three timelines run through this tightly plotted, inventive novel: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting from the de Groot family in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000 when its curator is faced with a youthful indiscretion which could destroy her reputation. Smith juggles his narrative stands with admirable deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted and there’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel. It’s that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which looked distinctly dystopian, not the kind of distraction I was looking for in a year spent trying to escape the real world, but she’s a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. A mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence –  it’s the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – flashes of humour shine out, her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence and it ends on a ringing note of much-needed optimism.

The next three months kick off with another bumper selection in June, including one often described as a Brexit novel. Can’t seem to get away from it…

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

Five Australian Novels I’ve Read

Given that I nicked this idea from Kim over at Reading Matters, an Australian blogger, albeit one living in the UK, it seems Cover imageonly fair to round up five books I’ve read by Australians. I should say I’ve read considerably more Australian fiction than that but these are five novels I’ve particularly enjoyed. The last three are linked to a full review.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon begins on a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century with a strange and ragged figure dancing out of the bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with indigenous Australians. At first his eccentricities are greeted with amusement but as the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment they see as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aboriginal people, lie? Every word counts in this slim, dazzlingly vivid novella.

Most British readers would probably name Peter Carey if pushed to come up with an Australian author. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all Carey’s novels but one stands out for me, so good I’ve read it three times: the 1988 Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda. The gawky, misfit, son of a preacher, Oscar Hopkins stumbles upon a method of paying his way through his theology studies, becoming an obsessive but successful gambler, convinced that he’s following God’s will. Equally the misfit, Lucinda Leplastrier, unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune and the proprietor of a glassworks, is well aware of the scandalous nature of her gambling addiction. When these two meet on board a ship bound for Australia, they form an unlikely bond which results in a calamitous misunderstanding as both wager their futures on a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

Romy Ash’s Floundering begins with Loretta swinging by her parents’ home to pick up her twoCover image sons who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. He and his older brother bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hungover, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse. Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have the de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner is delivering the work himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner.

Cover imageI’ll end this with a novel that I hope grabbed more attention in Australia that it seemed to here in the UK. Jennifer Down’s debut, Our Magic Hour, follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else while her partner tries to take care of her. Down’s novel is a masterclass in elegant understatement. Her writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into her circle making the loneliness of her life all the more wrenching but it can also be very funny: This could easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak book but Down steers it neatly clear of that. The result is a very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely.

Any Australian novels you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in September 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second instalment of September paperbacks starts with a book that I wanted to love but couldn’t quite manage to. If you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up their story around the time of 9/11. Bright Precious Days begins in 2006 with the global financial crisis not yet on the horizon. Russell runs a small independent publishing house while Corrine works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor. It’s a much better book than The Good Life but It doesn’t match the brilliance of Brightness Falls for me.

Art thrillers seem to be a bit of a thing at the moment. I read the wonderful The Last Painting of Sara de Vos earlier this year and if anyone’s looking out for a late summer read I’d recommend it. Coincidentally Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs also has an Australian connection. A ‘lost’ painting is donated to a Sydney gallery much to the amazement of the art world and the three men who’ve loved the women it portrays. Each of them comes to her isolated cottage to face their tangled past. ‘The Woman on the Stairs is an intricately crafted, poignant and beguiling novel about creativity and love, about the effects of time passing and the regrets that haunt us all’ say the publishers. It sounds appealing and I’ve enjoyed Schlink’s work in the past very much.

There’s a fair amount of regret in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother which comes with a hearty endorsement from the excellent Ron Rash. Set in Newfoundland, it’s the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation. When the local bully’s corpse is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed, almost everybody falls under suspicion including the brother of a family still suffering a terrible burden of grief. Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. I guessed Cover imagethe perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.

Fiona Melrose’s much praised Midwinter explores similar emotional territory by the sound of it. It’s about a Suffolk farming family who have worked their land for generations. Cecelia died when her youngest was just a child leaving two sons and their father who have stoically buried their grief and got on with their work but something about the dreadful winter which comes upon them makes them snap. ‘Tender and lyrical, alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame, lost opportunities and, ultimately, it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home’, apparently. Having recently reviewed the very fine Johannesburg which made it on to my Man Booker wishlist, I can’t imagine why I haven’t read this one already.

Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others sounds like an entirely different kettle of fish. Film-makers Meadow and Carrie grew up together in Los Angeles. When Meadow becomes involved with a woman whose seductive powers of listening are the subject of one of her documentaries, she sets in train her own downfall. ‘Heart-breaking and insightful, Innocents and Others is an astonishing novel about friendship, identity, loneliness and art’ say the publishers. It sounds intriguing.

Cover imageI’m ending September’s paperbacks with what’s been called a Brexit novel which I’m even more eager to read after reviewing Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut, Peirene Now!’s response to the referendum whose result shocked and dismayed many of us to the core. It’s Ali Smith’s Autumn, set in 2016 when Daniel is a century old and Elisabeth is thirty-two. ‘Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of?’ say the publishers. It sounds unmissable.

That’s it for September’s paperbacks. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here, and September’s new titles are here.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Art and fakery

Cover image I’m not sure how I managed to miss Dominic Smith’s novel last year, although the hardback edition’s jacket is somewhat off-putting. In his author’s note Smith tells his readers that the eponymous Sara is loosely based on one of the first women to be admitted to St Luke’s Guild in the 17th-century Netherlands, explaining that he wanted to explore the life of female artists whose work is so often unsung. The result is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000.

‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is Sara de Vos’ only known extant painting. It’s been owned by the de Groot family for centuries but never exhibited. In 1957, while Marty and Rachel host a charity fundraiser, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the original. It takes Marty some time to realise what’s happened and when he does his investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student stalled in her research who has become an expert conservator. Posing as someone else, Marty engages Ellie as an advisor, helping him to put together a collection. He can’t help but admire her passion for art and soon their relationship takes a turn which may be revenge or the beginning of something else. Decades later, Ellie has become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career about to be celebrated in an exhibition which will have ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner has decided to bring the painting from New York to Sydney himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. At the peak of her career, Ellie has been brought face-to face with her past. The story of the painting and its creator is woven through Ellie and Marty’s narratives.

Juggling three narrative strands, each of which inhabits very different periods, is a tricky structure to pull off but Smith manages it with sure-footed deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted, the descriptions of the 17th-century Netherlands particularly evocative and appropriately painterly. There’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel as we wonder how Ellie will resolve the dilemma her youthful indiscretion presents decades later. Beautiful writing, expert storytelling and erudition lightly worn combine to make Smith’s novel that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos  was a particularly timely read for me given the exhibition running at the Holburne Museum in my home town this year. It’s about the Bruegels whose peasant scenes are instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in the art of that period. Pieter the Elder died when both his sons – Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder – were children suggesting that his mother-in-law, Mayken Verlhust, known for her miniatures and watercolours, had been their teacher rather than their father. The exhibition celebrates ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ from the Holburne’s collection which was previously thought to be a copy but has now been expertly verified as the work of Pieter the Younger. Flemish painting combined with unsung female influence – albeit a century earlier – you can see why Smith’s novel seemed so apt for me.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of May paperbacks kicks of with Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival which tells the story of Julia Pastrana. Born in 1834, Julia is a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price even if that means allowing herself to be exhibited in a freak show. Her travels take her to Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg where she’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball and welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip. It’s an absorbing novel – the knowledge that Julia existed makes it particularly poignant – with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread which was something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. Still well worth reading, but no match for Jamrach’s Menagerie, one of my Blasts From the Past.

Emma Cline’s debut The Girls is also loosely based in fact – the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son. One day in 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals in a Californian park. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back at the dramatic events that shaped the course of her lonely life. Cline’s novel succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathy steering well clear of the prurient. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me but that’s a small criticism. Cover image

Dominc Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos has a very appealing premise. It draws together a landscape painting by a woman admitted to a Dutch Guild as a master painter in 1631, the person who inherited it in the 1950s and a celebrated Australian art historian, about to curate an exhibition fifty years after forging the work, who finds herself faced with the arrival of both versions of it. ‘As the three threads intersect with increasing and exquisite suspense, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerises while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present’ says the publisher. Very much like the sound of this one.

Entirely different but also appealing, A. L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sees a fifty-nine-year-old senior civil servant struggling with his conscience over his government’s shenanigans and on the brink of spilling the beans. Meanwhile, Meg Williams is a forty-five-year-old bankrupt accountant just about managing to keep sober. Set over twenty-four hours in 2014, it’s about ‘two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world: ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty, and for a chance at tenderness’ says the publisher. I have a very on-again off-again relationship with Kennedy’s writing but find state-of-the-nation novels well-nigh impossible to resist, even though the nation’s in a very different state these days.

Cover imageLast but very far from least, is Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, another coup for the excellent Oneworld. Billed as a ‘biting satire’, it’s about a young man who’s been the subject of his sociologist father’s controversial studies, under the impression that the resultant book will make the family’s fortune. After his father’s murder it becomes clear that there is no book. What’s more the small town of Dickens is no longer on the map, thanks to the embarrassing nature of his father’s work. The young man sets about righting what he sees as this wrong, taking outrageous measures that land him before the Supreme Court. ‘The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game’ promises the publisher and clearly the Man Booker judges agreed.

That’s it for May’s paperback preview. A click on the first two titles will take you to my review and to a detailed synopsis for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the first part, it’s here while May hardbacks are here.