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The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, by Dominic Smith

One of the criteria by which I judge my enjoyment of a book is the degree to which I am immersed in it. When the awareness of the words on the page falls away and I’m sucked into the world of the book, the thoughts of the characters, and forget that I’m reading – that is a good book. That is what it’s like to read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. There are half a dozen of them, bundled against the cold, flecks of brown and yellow cloth floating above the ice. A brindled dog trots beside a boy as he arcs into a wide turn. One mitten in the air, he’s beckoning to the girl, to us.

Sara is a Dutch painter living in the 1630s; in fact, she is the first woman to be accepted into the Artists’ guild, allowing her to sign and sell her works – as long as she sticks to ladylike still lifes and pictures of tulips. However, when tragedy tears her family apart, and the guild suspends her membership, she must do everything she can to survive. Centuries later, in the 1950s, the only surviving work attributed to Sara is cunningly switched for a forgery, and its owner is determined to retrieve what was stolen from him…and then some. Finally, in the year 2000, an Australian gallery discovers the forgery when both paintings are loaned at the same time.

The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the marital bed during a charity dinner for orphans. This is how Marty de Groot will tell the story in the years ahead, how he’ll spin it for the partners at the law firm and quip it comedic life at dinner parties and over drinks at the Racquet Club.

I was plunged into the story immediately, and read this gem of a novel from cover to cover in a single day. I could not put it down; I stopped only to eat. The descriptions are so tangible, and the emotional development of the characters is so moving, that they felt completely real to me. I felt like I was watching the forger paint, not reading about it. I felt like I could hear Marty de Groot’s breathlessness as he discovers the painting has been stolen. I felt like my heart was breaking along with Sara’s. It’s an art thriller, in a way. There are false identities, deceit and decades of guilt. There is beautiful scenery, and images that are equally horrific, such as the ominous beached whale that opens our introduction to Sara.

When Barents told them about the talk of the leviathan in the taverns, about his desire to go paint the washed-up animal, Kathrijn’s face filled with enormous gravity. It wasn’t fear, but steely resolve. For months, she’s been plagued by nightmares and bedwetting, by terrible visions in the small hours. “I must come see that, Father,” she said earnestly. Barent tried to change the subject, commented that it was no excursion for a girl. For half an hour, it appeared this was the end of the matter. Then, over dinner, Kathrijn leaned over to Sara and whispered in her ear: “More than anything, I want to see the monster die.”

The narrative jumps from 1637 to 1958 to 2000 but it is never jolting: it comes at exactly the right time to spur the story along, give a little more background, and reveal the clever links between Sara, whose work is ignored because of her gender, and Ellie, whose own painting was discouraged by a father who believed she was “puttin’ on airs”. Sensitive to issues of gender, class and cultural differences, this novel will appeal to anyone who liked the first half of the Goldfinch, Girl With a Pearl Earring or The Munich Girl. But beyond its artsiness is a powerful psychological game that unfolds between the owner of the original and its forger.

The threat of being found out makes her want to take stock, to peer into the corners of her life for broader deceits. Is she a fundamentally flawed person? She fixates on small lapses, as if they might reveal something larger… She tries to uncover a breadcrumb trail of moral failure, a trail that perhaps began with her forgery, or even before, with the shoplifting excursions at boarding school.

In fact, I can find no faults with this novel. Not one. It is neatly and cleverly constructed, with the pace accelerating at the end until we see Ellie and Sara standing almost on the same spot, in different times, both geographically and emotionally. It is descriptive without being purple, emotionally charged yet not sappy, immensely powerful in its subtlety. The details regarding the art and forging are interesting without reading like a textbook, and the words slip away from your awareness as you’re fully immersed, giving a strong sense of the different times and places in which we are placed. This is an exquisite book and I will absolutely read it again.

Sara brings her gaze back from the low fire beneath the cauldron. “Will it ever go away? The anguish.” “Not ever, as far as I can tell. I just hope the dead feel better about it than we do.” She hefts herself up and goes back to the cauldron to give it a stir.