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Thursday, September 17, 2009

2009 Man Booker Nominee "How to Paint a Dead Man" by Sarah Hall (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Sarah Hall at Wikipedia
Order "How to Paint a Dead Man" HERE
Read an Excerpt from "How to Paint a Dead Man"

INTRODUCTION: I have heard of Sarah Hall in connection with her acclaimed The Carhullan Army (UK) aka Daughters of the North (US), her third novel and first speculative fiction venture in 2008. After learning about "How to Paint a Dead Man" in the Booker Longlist, its cover and blurb attracted me so I bought it on publication day here in the US last week and I read it soon after, this being a novel that once I immersed in, I could not leave and read anything else, at least fiction; once it ended I was sad that it did so and wanted more, so I had to reread it at least once...

: "How to Paint a Dead Man" is a deceptively short novel as page count goes at about 270, but it packs so much imagery, lyricism and emotion to be almost overwhelming at times and compelling many rereads of earlier paragraphs, as well as a reread of the whole when done.

The novel is divided in four viewpoints "The Mirror Crisis", "Translated from the Bottle Journals", "The Fool on the Hill" and "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni", that follow each other with regularity seven times, while towards the end they invert a little in two more sequences, to end with "The Mirror Crisis" in a brilliant life-affirming way; there is also a short epilogue from an Italian manual of art titled like the novel "How to Paint a Dead Man" and describing precisely the mentioned act.

"The Mirror Crisis" is told in second person and for once I liked this mode of narration which I usually dislike since it accords to the powerful and dominant personality of its POV. In contemporary London, Susan Caldicutt is a reasonably successful mid thirties photographer and art gallery manager, owning a flat with her long-term partner Nathan, as well as being the daughter of famous bohemian/rebellious landscape artist Peter Caldicutt aka "The Fool on the Hill" named so for reasons to be peeled slowly.

As it happens Susan is a twin of dropout, popular boy Danny who followed the role model of his father in his carefree attitude to life; or maybe as a response to the power of Susan's personality, power that was so evident in their childhood that she was taken to a psychologist by herself to separate her identity so to speak and allow Danny to develop an identity of his own.

As the novel starts, one of Danny's nightcap "high on drugs" bike rides ends tragically on the wrong way lane of a highway and an incoming truck...

"Translated from the Bottle Journals" follows the sunset of a famous Italian painter who for reasons that are slowly revealed has been painting only on bottles for a long time. Living on a hill in Italy's countryside of the mid 60's, the 78 year old painter is nearing death and meditates on art, life, his tragic past, as well as tutoring local kids including Annette who suffers for a degenerative eye condition that will lead to blindness sooner rather than later. Giorgio is still working as well as corresponding to many people, not least young struggling working class English painter Peter, whom Giorgio would love to meet in person and maybe share some experiences with. Receiving Peter's letters forms some of the most treasured of Giorgio's present moments as do his increasingly erratic journeys to teach the kids, especially Annette.

"The Fool on the Hill" takes place some 30 years after the previous sequence, and some 10-15 before the first sequence and follows a very eventful day from the life of Peter, including the (mis) adventure that gives its title, but despite its one day time localization, I thought this narrative to be the crux of the novel and Peter is by far the best drawn character, compassionate, powerful and humane and we follow him through dreams and recollections of his life. While Susan is powerful but selfish and domineering, and Giorgio wise but in decline, Peter is in his prime, well known, successful, still living the bohemian life with barely functioning cars, overgrown meadows, restless wandering, while his wife Lydia holds the fort so to speak...

"The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni" is the shortest of the four threads and follows the now blind teen Annette, several years after the events of "Bottle Journals". Annette with her puritanical mother who wants to protect her at all costs, sells flowers from the family business, has powerful visions as Giorgio predicted that blindness will draw herself in. Her life is at an intersection of the modern as reflected in the magazines brought by her brothers home or the TV bought by her uncle/stepfather and the pre-modern reflected by her church participation and her cemetery visits to her father and Giorgio's graves.

Each thread's voice is distinctive and together they combine in an unique and beautiful tapestry. Despite that compared with a sff novel there is much less action per se, "How to Paint a Dead Man" is very compelling and a page turner in addition to its beautiful prose. The subtlety of the multiple connections between the threads, between their themes and meaning, as well as the contrast between the simpler life of 40 years ago and the busy, almost harried life of today's metropolis add to the depth of the novel.

While contemporary "literary fiction" generally deals with the exploration of some facet or another of the human condition, this novel manages to explore a vast palette of humanity, despite its slimness and boundedness in relatively confined enclaves of space and time. If you want beautiful and moving prose and memorable characters that will remain with you for a long time, try this novel and I think you won't regret it. Just superb and one of the highlights of the year for me.


Harry Markov said...

This is to die for. I am always interested in such books, those that are different.

Liviu said...

The best is to check the excerpt above from Amazon Read Inside and see how the style works for you.

I was hooked when I opened the book and read it immediately.


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