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I have read a couple of Sarah Hall’s previous novels and not quite gelled with them. For some reason I was seduced by Burntcoat’s cover and some of the spruiks from writers I respect. I went for it, but perhaps I should have run with my head, not my heart. Burntcoat is the oddly named converted warehouse used by internationally renowned artist Edith Harkness. Edith constructs major public art projects and is working on The Witch, an iconic motorway installation that might be a Scottish version of The Angel of the North – made out of burnt wood, rising from the bushes. Yes, I know. The mental image of a woman rising from the bushes does not immediately make me think of witchcraft, but perhaps I have been on too many overland holidays. This art construction project involves techniques from Japan, burning the wood to preserve it. Meanwhile, Emily shares her space with Halit, a Turkish kitchen worker, and together they shield from a deadly virus that is sweeping the world and is definitely not Covid. A million Britons will die – some from the fever and some from the residual aftereffects. Long Notcovid. And she reminisces of a past love called Ali, and a childhood marked by the illness of her mother Naomi. All this is told in a fragmentary way with non-linear narratives. For the most part, the actual narrative is lucid, but there are digressions into metaphysics that never felt worth unravelling. Sometimes this fragmentary style can be used to great effect, gradually building a complete picture. Other times it just feels like hiding a story that doesn’t cohere, hiding details for the sake of it. So here, for example, the author goes to great lengths to delay the reveal that Halit is Turkish, although frequent use of Turkish will give that away for those who recognise the language. Except, for some reason, he is also half Bulgarian. Or leaving it for some time to reveal that Ali is short for Alistair rather than being of Arabic origin – I mean, why? Or being intentionally unspecific about the geographic location. There are redeeming features. Some of the individual scenes are well constructed. Ali’s doorstep tantrum, perhaps. Edith’s slightly strange relationship with her mother. Plus, most mercifully, Burntcoat is short. Overall, though, there is just this sense that Burntcoat is trying too hard to be arty without too much real substance behind it. ***00
Sarah Hall's newly published fourth novel has surged up to my top few reads of 2009. This shouldn't be surprising given the string of accolades she has to her name so far. Her first novel, Haweswater (2002) won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers' Prize in two categories (Overall Winner and Best First Book). Her second, The Electric Michelangelo (2004), was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), and longlisted for the Orange Prize. Her third, Carhullan Army, snapped up the John Llwellyn-Rhys Prize in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction. Her themes have been varied but often centred on watery threats. Haweswater related the effects on the creation of a reservoir on a Cumbrian community of farmers in the 1930s. The Electric Michelangelo followed the life of a tattoo artist born in the early 19th Century as he moved from Morecambe in Southern England to Coney Island in America. Carhullan Army was set in a 1984-type nightmare setting of a future totalitarian England engulfed by flood water. How To Paint A Dead Man is a departure of sorts in that art forms the magnetic core of the story. Drawn to this central force are four disparate individuals whose stories are interwoven. The themes touched on include loss ( of a loved one through bereavement or of a vital capacity such as vision), identity, family, life and death, but such philosophically heavy issues never detract from the lightness and fluidity of Hall's touch. Her startlingly powerful and accomplished brush-strokes are mirrored by the rich seam of art running through the book. The four individuals whose stories intersperse are linked, sometimes tenuously, sometimes biologically, and their tales are separated by oceans and decades. Susan Caldicutt is a promising young photographer and artist who works in a gallery. The death of her twin brother throws her into dislocation, and she finds that she is numbed by her loss: 'You're not sure what's wrong exactly; it's hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate. It isn't grief. Grief would be simple. Something internal, something integral has shifted. You feel lost from yourself. No. Absent. You feel absent. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognise hosted within the glass.' And: 'You exist just outside the life you have with Nathan. It isn't your life anymore. Within is the choreography of eating and sleeping and paying bills, the mechanics of being together in a relationship, which has nothing to do with who you are.' The only way Susan can revive any sensation, feel alive, is through dark, forbidden, risky sex, which involves treachery both towards her loving boyfriend Nathan and her oldest university friend and work colleague Angela. Peter Caldicutt is Susan's father, himself a successful landscape painter. His strands of the narrative are set a few years before his daughter's. Hall takes us into his mind on a typical day where he daydreams about his wild past and savours his current security. But the typical day turns nasty and his own unconventionality is a factor in the delay before he is saved. Giorgio is an enigmatic reclusive Italian artist who is dying of cancer. His tale is set in the 1960s. He takes a wry, good-humoured attitude towards his impending death. In the last part of his life, he has been cheered by letters from an enthusiastic young art student in England called Peter Caldicutt. But Giorgio is tortured by deep sorrows from his past. Nevertheless, Hall maintains gentle humour in Giorgio's section: 'We bought pencils embossed with gold letters for her (the housekeeper's) nieces and nephews, of which there appear to be several hundred now.' And: 'Today she (the housekeeper) is her usual self again, that is to say, she has been banging in the kitchen and terrorising the house. We had a minor quarrel when she attempted to make me eat breakfast.' Annette is an Italian girl who Giorgio picked out as a natural talent when he taught art at her school. Even then, her vision was deteriorating from an incurable eye disease. Her story is set soon after Giorgio's death, as blindness engulfs her. Her strict Catholic mother, rocked by bereavement and shame, vents her bitterness by burdening Annette with guilt, and so Annette is suffused with a religious fear of the bogeyman who she envisages as a character from a painting she's seen. Sometimes when novelists attempt to juggle the stories of multiple key characters, characterisation is weakened. But this is not the case with Hall - all four of her main protagonists are realised fully and pulse with complexity. Susan's depersonalisation and derealisation and her perception that life and identity have drained from her are piercingly potent in their evocation; captured with a shocking accuracy that is jarring. Peter comes to life fully as an ageing hippy full of bravado and invented braggadacio about his famous friends from the '60s. Giorgio is so real in his stubbornness, disorganisation, genius and humanity that a section where he reflects on the losses from his past induced the prickling of tears in my eyes - not a common occurence with fiction in a sceptic like me. Annette's story is haunting and disturbing, and Hall captures her developing mind so acutely that the irrational fears she harbours of looming shadows lurking in wait elicit real tension and unease in the reader. Events - which in so many novels are the mechanical, artless droning of 'he went, she went, he said, she said' - take a backseat to the far more nebulous and difficult to nail triumvirate of emotions, feelings and sensations. Loss and fear are captured effortlessly and convincingly from the viewpoint of such different individuals. As important, there is a gorgeous poetic luminosity to Hall's prose. Many writers attempt lyricism but most create only leaden, tedious, inaccessible verbosity. Few - Banville, Barry, Updike among them - have (or had) the poetic gift and sensitivity to carry it off. Hall is one of them. Her writing has a real resonance and unostentatious beauty about it. Here are just a couple of examples out of many: 'The hairs on Annette's arms and neck lift, as fine as the filaments of a dandelion clock' and 'Inside solitude, people see the many compartments of unhappiness, like the comb of a pomegranate'. Yet the delicacy is never forced or out of character with the distinctive voice of the four strands. Susan's section, for example, is always contemporary in language, and sounds just as a young woman would think. How to Paint a Dead Man is quietly stunning, and brands itself on the brain, glowing on the retina like a blaze of direct sunlight or a bright star, long after you've turned the last page.
After reading this book, I went to Amazon to see what others had to say about it. I found, much to my surprise, that it seems to have originally been published under the title of 'The Carhullan Army'. Very strange. I prefer the 'Daughters' title, I must admit. The word 'army' just doesn't feel as apt. I picked it up because I really enjoyed reading 'The Electric Michaelangelo' and wanted to read more of Hall. This book is along the lines of 'Children of Men' and 'The Handmaid's Tale' portraying a dystopic future. Britain is in shambles, the government has fallen, it is in financial ruin as well as physical ruin due to floods and other natural disasters. People are living squashed into cramped quarters, with no real work and with many of their liberties taken away from them, in particular, the women are forced to wear coils so they cannot bear children. One woman decides she has had enough and puts her life at risk by attempting to leave her city and find a settlement of women who long ago shunned all of the outside world and live in a high and remote area of the Lake District. I really enjoyed reading this book. Hall really does impress me as this book feels completely different from Electric Michaelangelo. So many authors churn out books that all feel the same - are written the same way - but I didn't feel that with this. While TEM was more lyrical and wafty, this prose has more punch and bite, as befitting it's subject matter. I felt the reality of the dystopia really quite keenly. While I would probably say that 'The Handmaid's Tale' had a more impressive personal narrative, it never actually gave me a little shiver to consider that such a world might one day exist. This book did. Apparently Hall took her own experience of living through the floods a few years back and took her inspiring from that direct a source. I think you can feel that in this work. It feels real. It makes you wonder just how far we are away from some of the things portrayed in her book if we were to have an even bigger natural disaster strike. Hall doesn't bang you over the head with the feminine themes of this book. You can read it as it is and have an enjoyable time, or you could also take things further can consider the myriad of issues that her depiction of the settlement women bring up. What are females really capable of? Left on their own, do they form a more productive, peaceful society or do they have the same proclivities towards violence that is more often associated with men? Is there anything that is intrinsically female other than childbirth? At what point does one have to decide to fight for their civil liberties? The one criticism that I'll give it is Hall uses a structure for the telling of her story that cheats at times. From the very first page, it's obviously a report of a person that has been incarcerated and along the way, various bits of the report are 'corrupted'. In other words, the narrative skips forward. But strangely enough, though we are supposed to have missed certain parts of the story, the narrator seems to have anticipated this and at times, tells the story as if she knows that the parts were missing - a complete impossibility. It also enables Hall to do some serious fast forwarding towards the end of the book, something that felt perhaps a little bit of a cop-out. I don't suppose themes like this will ever have neatly wrapped up endings, but I think she could have done a little bit better with a tad more effort. One other thing to mention - the book is quite short. I'm not sure about the exact size but I would have said that it's very nearly a novella. Not a bad thing - but I read this easily in two nights of reading. 3 and a half stars out of 5 And I'm off to buy Hall's other book.
Another of my recent buys for £1 this tells the story of Cy Parks who is brought up by his mother in the genteel world of seaside Morecambe Bay. never mind that his mother is a secret abortionist whose boarding house/hotel caters for consumptives and an annual suffragette visit, this is Cy's story. He becomes an apprentice to the local tattoo artist and when both his mother and his patron die he moves to Cony Island. I am not quite sure what to make of this yet I'm about 1/3 of the way through. The descriptions of the tattoos and the meanings they can have for those who have them is fascinating and the slightly seedy world beautifully realised. I have to say that I think the title is superb it conjurs up some wonderful images. I will post more when I have finished.