James Bradley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In a time when cul­tural product is able to be de­liv­ered in­stan­ta­neously al­most any­where in the world, it’s tempt­ing to think the tyranny of dis­tance is his­tory. Yet when it comes to lit­er­a­ture it’s not that sim­ple, as the ca­reer of Do­minic Smith at­tests. Raised in Syd­ney, Smith left Aus­tralia for the US at the age of 18 and, ex­cept for a brief stint in the 1990s, has lived there ever since. Yet de­spite pub­lish­ing three crit­i­cally ac­claimed nov­els and re­ceiv­ing many ac­co­lades in his adopted home, his pro­file in Aus­tralia re­mains sur­pris­ingly low.

That seems set to change with the pub­li­ca­tion of Smith’s fourth novel, The Last Paint­ing of Sara de Vos, an el­e­gant yet grip­ping his­tor­i­cal drama about the na­ture of art and loss and love set in 17th-cen­tury Hol­land, 1950s New York and 21st-cen­tury Syd­ney, which is al­ready re­ceiv­ing rave re­views here and over­seas.

As the novel opens it is 1957 and lawyer Marty de Groot and his wife, Rachel, are pre­par­ing for a party in their Up­per East Side home. The soiree is a fundraiser for the Aid So­ci­ety, an event Marty and Rachel have hosted an­nu­ally for a decade, usu­ally with­out any­thing more sig­nif­i­cant hap­pen­ing than Man­hat­tan grandees wildly over­spend­ing on “opera tick­ets, foun­tain pens and sub­scrip­tions for Yacht­ing mag­a­zine” in the char­ity auc­tion.

This year is dif­fer­ent, how­ever. For while the busi­ness of the party un­folds on the ter­race and in the din­ing room, thieves slip into Marty and Rachel’s bed­room, re­move the paint­ing that hangs above their bed and re­place it with a fake.

The stolen paint­ing, known as At the Edge of the Wood and de­pict­ing a girl stand­ing be­hind a tree watch­ing a group of skaters, is ex­cep­tional not just be­cause it has been in Marty’s fam­ily for more than three cen­turies, but be­cause it is one of the few sur­viv­ing works by elu­sive Dutch artist Sara de Vos, a fig­ure known — inas­much as she is known — for a hand­ful of still lifes and for be­ing one of the few women to have been ad­mit­ted to Haar­lem’s pow­er­ful pain­ters’ or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Guild of St Luke.

Yet the true sig­nif­i­cance of At the Edge of the Wood lies not in its prove­nance but in the paint­ing it­self, which is “no vil­lage frolic be­fore the on­rush of night” but some­thing “un­like any­thing else painted by a baroque woman … a win­ter land­scape with the glau­cous at­mos­phere of [a work by Dutch painter Hen­drick] Aver­camp, the del­i­cate grays and blues and rus­sets, the peas­ants skat­ing through the ether of twi­light above the ice”, the “stark and for­lorn fig­ure” of the girl, “the on­looker but also the fo­cal point, the cen­ter of grav­ity … trapped by the eter­nity of dusk”.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary still­ness and in­ten­sity has long since worked its magic on Marty and, as it hap­pens, on El­lie Ship­ley, the strug­gling stu­dent hired to pro­duce a copy of the paint­ing by the peo­ple be­hind its even­tual theft, and whose The Last Paint­ing of Sara de Vos By Do­minic Smith Allen & Un­win, 384pp, $32.99

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