Exceptional novel to savour

2009-11-04 00:00


How to Paint a Dead Man

Sarah Hall

Faber and Faber

ON this year’s Man Booker long list, How to Paint a Dead Man is one of those novels that, when you reach the final page, you want to start all over again. Not just to see if you missed any of the threads Sarah Hall weaves ­together, but also to savour some quite exceptional writing. Hall can craft words with the best of them.

That said, I have to admit I found the beginning of the story quite hard to engage with. Hall’s book is in four parts, taking the lives of four loosely connected characters, and ranging in place and time from the sixties in Italy to present-day England, and moving back and forth between them. Of the four, the only tale told in the first person is that of Giorgio, an elderly and celebrated Italian artist who is dying. Throughout his career, he has obsessively painted the same group of ­objects. And slowly we learn about his past, the death of his wife at the hands of the Nazis and his contact with a young English artist.

This is Peter, an almost caricature bohemian landscape painter. A large part of his narrative takes place while he is trapped after a fall on his beloved fells and in between working out if and how he is going to escape, he thinks back over his life and his relationships with his wife and twin children.

Back to the sixties, but a little after the death of Giorgio, we have Annette, a blind flower seller who, before she lost her sight, had met Giorgio and he had encouraged her to paint and draw, even though she will be unable to do so for long. She is deeply spiritual, but threatened by things she cannot see.

Finally, we come to Susan, Peter’s photographer daughter, the most current of the voices, and probably the most developed character. She has been shattered by the death of her beloved twin brother, and can no longer make sense of her life as she throws herself into an affair with a man who is also linked to other characters.

In part, How to Paint a Dead Man deals with the relationship between life and art; in part it is a meditation on death, both in preparing for it and in coping with its aftermath. It is a profoundly serious novel: by no means an easy read, but a fascinating and stimulating one.

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