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How to Paint a Dead Man


leyla
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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.

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  • 1 month later...

A great middle, but where’s the beginning and the end?

 

How To Paint A Dead Man pitches straight in to the story - no introductions - and this means that any significance in the first chapters is rather lost in the confusion. I’m told this is a style called “in medias res” and is often a sign of an artist at work. And in case we missed it, we get it four times over - as the novel comprises four stories, chopped up and we get a chapter of each in turn, before we return to the first. This, too, isn’t quite spelt out adding to the air of confusion. In fact, it later becomes apparent that each of the four stories has its own title, and this is the heading at the start of the chapter, but it takes a while to twig onto that.

 

We then have four separate narrative strands, each one quite self-consciously beautiful, and each with theme of art. Writers seem to like writing about art - perhaps it gives them licence to paint with words. Whilst that can irritate, in this case some of the narratives really came into sharp and atmospheric focus at times. At its best, the narrative was gripping with clear, strong characterization and compelling story lines. We felt Peter’s pain as he struggled to free himself from the wet, cold rocks. We rooted for Annette’s courage in facing her blindness and the vulnerability that brought. At other times the focus seemed to drift and one narrative - The Mirror Crisis - never seemed to arrive at all.

 

Although the narratives had characters in common (the focus of one might be mentioned in another) the stories were really separate, like four novellas interleafed. Perhaps this was necessary to add relief to the intensity of the narrative, perhaps it was useful in masking the fact that none of the narratives was strong enough to stand on its own. Who can say? The overall effect, though, was to make the novel appear a little bit deeper than it really was.

 

Not content with the “in medias res” openings, Sarah Hall has opted for studied ambiguity in the ending. Four times over. That felt just a bit tacky - as a gimmick, ambiguity can work once in a while. But to use it four times in the space of twenty or so pages just makes it look as though Sarah Hall didn’t know how to write an ending.

 

The effect then, is one of the Trail Pieces of which Seamus Heaney wrote. Beautifully crafted, intricate works with no purpose - not part of a bigger thing. Sure there are themes, particularly death, loss, infirmity, disability. There is just a lack of something to bring it all together.

 

***00

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I don't agree at all, Mr HG. I don't think a great novel needs a 'beginning, middle and end'. That's convention/tradition, but nowadays novels can be of many different forms. I thought the way Hall left strands dangling was much more thought provoking than tying up all loose ends neatly in a false way, as many writers do. Events in life often don't have transcribed beginnings, middles and ends. In any case, the strand of story dealing with the blind flower seller did have a resolution, albeit a tragic one. The other strands too proceeded to conclusions of one kind or another. And the whole story was related so beautifully that the entire journey was a complete pleasure. This is my book of the year so far, and I hope it wins The Booker.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm not bothered about beginning middle and ends so much as things happening. In this book, I just feel bogged down in literary prose. Everything, every stray thought, is described in ten different ways and however beautiful that is, it just seems so slow.

 

Mind you, I am only a third of the way through and I had the same feeling about the Booker winner "The Sea" by Jahn Banville, so it really is 'just me'.

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A photographer and curator adjusts to the sccidental death of her twin by having a lot of sex. A young girl sells flowers and awaits some form of initiation by a devlish bestia. An Italian artist is dying of cancer in the 1960s. A painter and nature-lover gets his foot crushed by rocks and is trapped.

 

An author labours over several rather beautiful but only tangentially related short stories and character sketches, then cuts them up and stiches them back together to make something that almost looks like a novel.

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Finished this on holiday and things did happen. I'm not overly convinced that the writing is that beautiful though. Some things seemed a bit too forced, like the author was trying too hard to be literary, such as the use of 2nd person tense in one narrative. Was this because the mc of this part was a twin? Only it didn't feel like the other twin was doing the narrating.

 

I thought the characters all came across well as individuals. I kept trying to look for connections between the narratives - apart from the obvious but tenuous ones (related, taught by, wrote to etc) - and came to the conclusion that all the main characters had someone important in their lives who'd died... and that maybe they all touched death in some way. If this was the main point of the book I wish it had been explored a bit more obviously as it might have brought it all together a bit more meaningfully. At the end it all felt a bit too random.

 

I can't help feeling that the novel might have been rushed out and that given time, Sarah Hall might have been able to do a better job with it... either that or I'm missing something far too subtle for my brain. It may be that if I studied it as a text like I would for an exam, I'd get more out of it, but I'm not sure I want to do that.

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I agree with you, Star, about the second person narrative. It really started to grate. I suspect it was done to look (a) quirky and (B) to give "character" to the weakest of the narratives.

 

I'm not sure the text would give terribly much more on further study. I think it really is just four straightforward short stories, chopped up and interleaved to create the impression of something more than it really is. This looks like a book that tries to be arty whilst missing the point that art requires substance.

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This looks like a book that tries to be arty whilst missing the point that art requires substance.

Oh, harsh there, MrHG. You make it seem like Hall is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I suspect she agonised quite a bit over this book and probably did have artistic aims (though as noted above, I don't think she achieved them).

 

That's a different thing entirely from 'trying to be arty' and 'missing the point'. Your inner philistine needs a slap on the wrist.

 

Star, you make an interesting point about the 2nd person sections. It's a very tricky narrative technique to use. I suspect Hall does it so we can more subjectively experience being a twin the way her twin character does - the 'you' signifies a part of her identity that is external to herself. I'd like to find an interview where someone asked Hall if that is so, and if she thinks it works.

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I thought the use of the second person narrative in the parts about the bereaved twin was because of the sensations of numbness and unreality (known in psychiatric parlance as depersonalisation and derealisation) that people suffering a sudden bereavement often feel. The shock of an unexpected death often makes the bereaved person unable to grieve properly. There's a sense of looking down on oneself as if watching someone in a film. It's hard to explain if you haven't experienced it yourself. I did, when two people from my immediate family died in the same year quite suddenly and it was a horribly disconcerting feeling, and for me it alternated with periods of devastation when reality sunk in. I got the impression it was similar for the twin in the novel. It's part of an 'abnormal grief reaction', allegedly, which means the loss doesn't properly sink in until much later when the normal reactions like crying occur. So for me, that second person narrative had a very important point.

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Oh, harsh there, MrHG. You make it seem like Hall is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I suspect she agonised quite a bit over this book and probably did have artistic aims (though as noted above, I don't think she achieved them).

 

That's a different thing entirely from 'trying to be arty' and 'missing the point'. Your inner philistine needs a slap on the wrist.

I consider my wrist duly slapped.

 

Perhaps I was harsh but sometimes a "novel" seems to try just a bit too hard to tick literary boxes without feeling as though it has any soul. Erica Wagner's Seizure was one a couple of years ago. This is another one. I wonder whether Sarah Hall wrote it because she had something to say (she doesn't seem to be a natural story teller) or whether it was to target critical praise and prizes. I genuinely don't know, and I'm not sure it matters. All that ultimately matters is that this is a book which doesn't satisfy the reader.

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Thank you, Star. I found a similar distancing in the shell-shocked narrator in A.L.Kennedy's Day who was numbed from killing people in WWll. A lot of readers in the group I discussed it with didn't warm to the protagonist but I thought the numbness was part of his reaction to his trauma.

 

I would like to read other Hall books - has anyone here read any of them? A friend of mine loved Haweswater. I haven't bought it because I read a slightly dull Booker longlisted book about a flood/reservoir a few years ago, and then another more interesting one by Graham Swift in which the parts about the flooding of The Fens was the least interesting part in an otherwise good book. Maybe the one to try next is The Electric Michelangelo.

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I have "The Electric Michelangelo" in my TBR pile. I bought it at the same time as HTPADM on the strength of the "read me" pages on Amazon. It seemed to have a lot of atmosphere, which I like in a story.

 

Let us know what it's like after you've read it, Star. I have high hopes for it - it was Booker shortlisted and what I know of the plot (a tattoo artist, I believe) sounds interesting.

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It'll be ages before I get round to another Sarah Hall, Star, even though I'd love to read one now. I have two shelves of To Read books including a lot of the Booker longlist and several new releases. The tyranny of book addiction :-) But I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Electric Michelangelo.

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