What an utter delight to take a book with little personal interest only to discover a rich tapestry of stories that intertwine with a grace and beauty that lingers long after it ends.
Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a beautifully told, romantic ode to art, love and history. Spanning three continents at three points in time, we glimpse the tragic and harsh life of 17th Century Dutch painter Sara de Vos, leading to her prized work, At the Edge of a Wood, that would survive the centuries. More than three hundred years later, in 1950s New York, descendant Marty de Groot has the painting stolen and replaced with a detailed forgery; while in the same period, we meet Australian grad student Ellie Shipley who paints the forgery and, fifty years later, back in Sydney, curates an exhibition of female Dutch painters which threatens to bring her past back to haunt her.
The prose switches effortlessly between each of these lives as their individual journeys begin to blend into a cohesive tale of love, loss and memories. Smith’s well-researched study of the art world and art collectors adds authenticity and interest to this oft-misunderstood lifestyle, revealing intricate details of restoration and art interpretation without getting bogged down in detail. Historically, we learn about life in poverty in the 1630s, the place of women in society, and the fragility of life as Sara loses her 7 year old daughter to the plague and is deserted by her husband.
Smith toys with the lingering loss of romance, and slowly builds tension as Ellie’s exhibition brings her face to face with de Groot again, in the presence of both the original painting and her forgery. His writing style is like a memory, sweet and dreamy, and it’s captured beautifully by the dulcet tones of Edoardo Ballerini who narrates the audiobook in a softly spoken voice that express both the passion and the angst of the characters.
Sadly, Ballerini’s accents are dreadful and are offered unevenly. His Australian characters sound more akin to South Africans with an occasional Irish lilt. Most other characters, regardless of their nationality, are given no accent at all, outside of his own natural speaking voice. The latter works better by far, although the poor Australian accents do jar less as the story progresses. He does, however, possess a gift at identifying characters with just a slight change of tone or speech pattern, making it easy to recognise who is speaking. Had he relied only on this talent, his narration would have been ideal.
The unabridged audiobook of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos runs for 9 hours 58 minutes and is available from Bolinda Audio. Despite Ballerini’s poor Australian accents, his skills as a reader more than make up for it as he brings Dominic Smith’s stunning novel to life. It’s well worth a listen.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 8
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd
Release Date: 1 July 2016