Accent anarchy: listening to The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Although relatively new to them,  I’ve quickly come to love the accessibility of audio books – that I can be walking or driving or hoovering and still be consuming books. I can drown out irritating chat on public transport and still be buried in a novel.  I’ve only listened to a couple, and whilst I’m largely won over, I now realise that listening to a book is very different to reading it, and not necessarily always in a positive way.

There’s been a fair bit of chat about whether listening to a book is ‘cheating’.  The simple answer to that question appears to be no – for typical adults, listening comprehension and reading comprehension is mostly the same thing, says Daniel Willingham, a Professor in Psychology.

The far more interesting question though, I think, is whether by listening to a book I’m experiencing it in the way the author intended.

My first audio book ever was Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, and it was the perfect introduction.  Helen herself reads this and I loved the experience of her interpreting her book for me. It brought it to life in ways that I couldn’t have on my own.

My second excursion into audio book world has been quite different. I’m now thinking that by listening to The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, I’ve done the book an injustice.

Dominic Smith’s superb book doesn’t need another lengthy review, and certainly not by me.  It has attracted significant praise, which it well and truly deserves. The novel centres around the theft of a Dutch landscape, At the Edge of the Wood, painted by Sara De Vos.  It’s this painting which binds Sara De Vos to Ellie Shipley (an art student) and Marty de Groots (a patent lawyer) over 300 years after she paints it.

Smith has crafted a novel which flawlessly combines historical and contemporary backdrops: it flits between Holland in the  ‘Golden Age’ of the 1600s, New York in the 1950s and Sydney in 2000.  In all of these settings, the writing is rich, the attention to detail extraordinary and the story expertly and unpredictably constructed.  Each character is brought to life so convincingly that on at least two occasions I googled ‘Sara de Vos’.  I still can’t quite believe she is purely an invention of Smith’s imagination.

The novel canvasses themes of wealth (‘couldn’t decades of eating the best foods, taking the best vacations, and sleeping in the finest beds prevent the slumping of the frame and the spackling of the skin?), grief (‘nothing in the world is more sinister than a child’s coffin’) and in particular, regret: ‘you carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like gravesite vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again’.

The book itself is stellar, but what about the audio version?

The narrator of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is Edoardo Ballerini, ‘a frequent and Award-winning narrator of audio books’. (He has also appeared in Charmed, which is irrelevant to this post, but is highly significant to me!). 

For a decent period of the audio, I thought Edoardo was doing an excellent job as narrator; he has a beautifully smooth voice with a soft American cadence. And then, he started speaking in the voice of Ellie Shipley.  The problem? Ellie is Australian, and Edoardo, despite his velveteen tones, cannot do an Australian accent. I found myself wincing every time Ellie spoke; I prayed that she would turn out to be the strong silent type. She wasn’t.

What was that accent, Edoardo? You glided from Kiwi, to South African and sometimes even strayed as far as Ireland – but it wasn’t for one moment Australian.  My tip: you should have practiced saying Woollahra a couple of times before you recorded it. The apex of the accent catastrophe was a scene with a number of different Australians  – men, women, working class and not – conversing at length in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  It was like overhearing a backpacker conversation in Bangkok; there was every contortion of accent up for grabs.

Unless you’re a sociolinguist, this is unlikely to bother anyone apart from Australians (and possibly Kiwis, South Africans and maybe some Irish people). But it almost killed the book for me, and probably would have if the book itself wasn’t so absorbing.

So, I am disappointed that I listened to The Last Painting of Sara De Vos. I know there were some passages that I’d have loved to have re-read and quotes I’d have jotted down – had the pages been in front of me.  I also know that my imagination would have constructed a more authentic version of Ellie Shipley, and her Australian colleagues. As it was, I just couldn’t picture Ellie in my mind – that accent kept getting in the way.

I will keep on traversing the audio book world, but gingerly.  As for any future narrators, particularly for books in Australian settings, they’ll be carefully vetted.  Unless they’re Meryl Streep, of course.

What have been your experiences of audio books?  Any I should avoid, or alternatively, seek out?

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.


  1. Or books read by Dev Patel whose Australian accent in Lion was FLAWLESS 😀

    Like you, I’ve come to audiobooks late (only started listening last year). My experience has been mixed as well. For the most part, any book read by the author themselves is going to be good – my first audio book was Richard Flannagan’s Narrow Road, read by Flannagan. It was brilliant.

    But I have had some bad experiences, all because I haven’t liked the narrator’s voice. Now I tend to stick to listening to ‘lighter’ books on audio, partly because I usually just listen to a few minutes here and there, so want a story that isn’t too complex.

    • That is exactly the conclusion that I came to – limit myself to audio read by authors, books that I’m not that fussed about, or those that aren’t that complicated. I listened to the audio version of Mothering Sunday on the way to Port Fairy last weekend (as a result of your review). That worked pretty well.

    • Buttercup Henderson

      I agree 100%. Americans, for instance CANNOT manage a genuine Aussie accent; in fact I have never heard any non-Australian actor carry off an Aussie accent, period!
      I cannot listen to audio books; my imagination does a much better job and I’m sticking with it.

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