How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
I hugely enjoy reading all the buzz about the Booker Prize, but I normally don’t indulge in any deliberate speculative reading, preferring to pick and choose a select few short/longlisted titles after the event. Today though I can say I’m totally with it just this once, having started to read Hall’s fourth novel the day before the 2009 longlist announcement.
This is an unashamedly literary novel about art, life, death, and ultimately rebirth, with four separate but linked characters’ stories in alternating chapters looking back over about forty years. There’s the story of Peter, former hippy enfant-terrible of the art world, who now part of the establishment, lives happily in Cumbria with his second wife Lydia; and there’s Susan – Suze – Peter’s daughter and twin of drop-out Danny, making a name for herself as a photographer. Then there are two strands set in Italy – the great dying artist Giorgio who only paints still-lifes of bottles; and finally the blind girl Annette whom Giorgio used to teach before she lost her sight. The English and Italian strands are linked initially by Peter’s correspondence with Giorgio, but there are plenty of other tiny links that only become apparent as you read on.
The most thought-provoking story of the four though is that of Susan; the other three often appear to be in mere supporting roles, although they do all have their starring moments. Susan is suffering, her twin brother died in a stupid accident, and normal life for her can’t go on without her true other half. Numbed, she can only look life from outside of herself, and indulges in a wanton affair so that she can just feel something. Her story is written in the second person, and this makes it so detached and brutal yet clear. However the other three lives are in stasis too. In Italy Giorgio is waiting to die, and Annette is growing up blind, cushioned from normal life by her overbearing mother. Peter meanwhile is physically trapped – having fallen while out walking the fells wedging his leg between rocks. All are forced to look back upon the past as they wait for something to happen.
It took a couple of chapters of each of the stories to get into this novel. By the end though, you really cared about the characters, particularly Peter and Susan. Their stories resonate with an English reality in a way that is hard to compare with the comparative village idyll of the Italian strands. This is a slow-burning and challenging read that ends up forcing you to you think and meditate on the artists’ mind as well as the value of a life lived.
Book supplied by the Amazon Vine Programme. See also dovegreyreader for another review.