on 15 May 2012
Without going into too many details in respect of the plot, this is a startlingly original novel. Relatively little has been written about Romania or its experience of the second world war, which lends an entirely new perspective to what may otherwise have been a very familiar theme.
Augustin's story, and in particular the horrors to which he was subjected during the occupation of Romania, is conveyed with extraordinary poignancy. However, it is the unfolding of the events in the summer months leading up to the outbreak of war which is truly mesmerising.
Georgina's Harding's evocation of time and place is superb, and absorbs the reader completely in to the life and characters of Poiana. An overwhelming sense of nostalgia pervades the novel, for a golden age lost and forever irrecoverable, particularly for Safta. The prose is spare and beautiful, and draws the reader entirely in to the carefree, but restless atmosphere of the great house and its inhabitants.
The tragedy of the central characters is deeply and effortlessly conveyed, and haunts you long after finishing the novel, in spite of the story's uplifting ending.
This book is just over 300 pages long, but it seemed much shorter and I really didn't want it to end. It is easily the best book I've read so far this year.
This beautifully written, very moving book tells the story of two young people whose very different lives are torn apart by war and politics. At the start of the book, Augustin, who is deaf and cannot speak, is travelling across Romania on a desperate mission which almost kills him, but he refuses to give up until he finds his childhood friend, Safta. He eventually locates her at work in a hospital in the city of Iasi, but by the time he gets there he's in such a state that he collapses and is taken to a ward to recover.
Safta immediately recognises him as the daughter of her family's maid, but decides not to tell her colleagues of their connection. In flashbacks the story is told of their childhood in a large house in the Romanian countryside. On the surface life is idyllic; Safta and her brothers are loved and cherished by their parents and encouraged in their education and ambitions. Their mother decides to make Augustin her `project', instructing the children's governess to try to teach him to read and write in order to give him every chance in life. However, Augustin's abilities as an artist are apparent from an early age and he shuns the written word and chooses to communicate through pictures.
Beneath this happy veneer all is not well within the family, and in the wider world the threat of war in Europe is looming. This is a relatively short book (I read it over the course of a day) but a very powerful and emotional read, the memory of which will stay with me for some time. It really brought home the devastation wrought on Romania and other Eastern European countries - not just by the war but also afterwards, when the Communists moved in and requisitioned houses and reassigned jobs to suit their own ideology. The contrast between the relatively peaceful life lived by Augustin and Safta in their early years, and the stark reality of life behind the Iron Curtain just a decade later is clear and shocking.
This book caught my eye when it was short listed for the Orange Prize, and, although it didn't win, I think it must have been a very strong contender. It's the first novel I've read by Georgiana Harding but I intend checking out `The Solitude of Thomas Cave`, which also sounds very intriguing.
Georgina Harding's latest novel 'Painter of Silence' is set in Romania; it is the early 1950s and a frail, almost skeletal young man is found collapsed on the steps of the city of Iasi's hospital. He has no papers on him and offers no information about himself - in fact he does not speak at all, and it is some days before it is realized that the man is a deaf mute. One of the nurses, a young woman named Safta, recognizes the mute patient but, for reasons of her own, does not want the other staff at the hospital to discover this. Safta, who knows the history of the young man, brings paper and drawing materials into the hospital so that they can communicate through the sketches they draw and, in this way, she hopes to encourage the man back to life with memories of their shared upbringing.
The young man's name is Augustus; he was the son of the cook at Poiana, a grand rural estate which was Safta's family home and the place where both of them were born six months apart. We read how, as a very small child "growing up beside him in the days even before she herself learned to speak, little Safta had come to know him with a quick intuition as if he was the silent side of her self." However, as Safta grows into a beautiful young woman keen to embrace all that life has to offer and becomes very attracted to a young visitor to Poiana, she moves away from Augustus and he becomes the silent onlooker to her sexual awakening. And when Safta leaves Poiana, Augustus stays on, living his life in the way he has always done, until World War II rages through Europe and Romania is left in ruins only to be followed by the Communist takeover. There are things that Augustus needs to tell Safta, but can they be conveyed through the medium of his pictures?
Georgina Harding describes the scenes and the characters of her story wonderfully and has a real skill in evoking a sense of time and place as she deftly weaves together people's histories, their memories and their longings. 'Painter of Silence' is an evocative, poignant and hauntingly beautiful novel written in a spare, but fluent and graceful prose that I found immersing and totally mesmerising. Highly recommended.
Set in Romania in the aftermath of the Second World War and with the country under communist rule, this is a book which tells a harsh and sometimes bleak story in lyrical, quiet prose.
Safta and Augustin, the deaf-mute painter of the title, are brought up together as children, she the daughter of the house, he the cook's son. The book follows a dual narrative of the past in the run-up to, and course of, the war; and the present set in the 1950s when Safta and Augustin re-meet.
This isn't a busy, page-turning, action-filled novel - it's muted and restrained and depicts both its horrors and its evocation of a lost, golden past in an understated way. Almost the whole of the book is `told' to us rather than shown, so there is very little direct speech throughout the novel - perhaps itself a comment on the silent world of Augustin - and it took me a little while to settle into the rhythm of the book. Once settled, however, the prose becomes almost mesmeric in its ability to draw the reader in and keep her captured. I liked that this doesn't follow a conventional romance narrative, the relationships are far more subtle and nuanced than that.
Relatively recent changes in Europe have opened up viewpoints of the war, allowing us to experience it from Eastern rather than just a Western European perspective: if you enjoyed this, then you might also like The Beautiful Truth which engages with the Polish war experience, also told in beautifully lyrical and moving prose.
(4.5 stars) In this sensitive novel about an unusual and touching friendship, author Georgina Harding tells the story of life in a rural community in Romania beginning in the 1930s and extending through World War II and the Communist Occupation. As the novel opens, Augustin, a sick and almost starving man, has just arrived by train in Iasi, a city with which he is unfamiliar. He is looking for Safta, a childhood friend whom he has not seen since they were separated by the war and Communist Occupation. Years ago, they both lived at Poiana, a large country estate some distance from Iasi, where Safta now lives. The novel's narrative moves back and forth in time, changing perspectives as the author alternates the action between Augustin (Tinu), the son of the cook, and Safta, the daughter of Poiana's owners.
Tinu is both deaf and mute, and he is either uninterested or unable to learn sign language. He can write a few words, but does not seem able connect them with what they represent in the outside world. His only form of communication is through haunting drawings which he makes with soot and spit on found materials - paper, boxes, wrappings, pieces of cloth - and these drawings reflect an unusually selective view of the world in which the people have no faces and the buildings feel empty. Without a trace of easy sentimentality, the author depicts his life, limited view of the world, and the conclusions he draws about life. Though Safta intuitively understands much of what he feels and tries to teach him to write, she is a child, too, easily distracted by the natural excitements of her own childhood, and she has other friends with whom to spend time, especially in adolescence. "Tinu had a way that let you forget him," she notes, years later. "Even when he stood right in front of you there was no insistence to his presence."
Simple, sensitively depicted scenes from childhood send out ripples that include the individual members of Safta's family, the servants and Tinu's family, visitors, villagers, and their children, and broaden naturally to encompass bigger, more complex observations about life and the novel's themes of identity and connection. The author unifies the novel with perfect details, carefully connecting even the earliest scenes with the characters' perceptions as they grow, delicately shifting the focus back and forth between them at Poiana. She then puts everything into perspective in scenes from the later events in which Tinu is now a patient at the hospital where Safta works as a nurse. Many scenes stir the reader's emotions without being sentimental or maudlin, and the author's respect for these characters (and her audience) is obvious.
Basic questions about how we know and understand each other, how we perceive the world, and how we communicate with it echo throughout the novel, and the outbreak of war and the eventual Occupation put these themes into stark perspective. The elegant language sometimes gets in the way of natural-sounding dialogue; the character of Safta's love Andrei during her adolescent years is shallow; and the ending is implausible, but these missteps feel minor in a novel which is profoundly moving and often breath-taking, and it is one of my favorites for the year.
Other reviewers have commented on this novel's slowness but I think that this was sufficiently well signposted in several of the comments on the back cover, "a quiet storm of imagery and emotions", "like entering a dream world", "nourishes a slow-burning momentum" (although how exactly does one nourish a momentum?)
The key character in this novel is Augustin, the deaf-mute son of a servant to an upper-class family, the Valeanus, who live near the small town of Poiana in the 1930s. His closest friend is the daughter of the family, Safta.
The novel moves back and forth from their time as children to the 1950s when Safta, who decided not to emigrate with the rest of her family but to become a hospital nurse, meets Augustin (Tinu) who has been brought to the hospital after having been found one morning sitting on its steps. A fellow-nurse names him Ioan after her son who is still missing after fighting in Russia for the Romanian army.
In fact, Augustin/Ioan went to the hospital in search of Safta and, whilst recovering, he communicates through drawings and gradually the story of his life and the family is uncovered to the reader and to Safta, who left home after being abandoned by an expatriate lover, Andrei.
The novel is suffused in isolation, the isolation of the deaf-mute, the isolation of the people and the individuals of Romania in the war and, afterwards, under Stalinist rule, and the isolation of Safta from the rest of her family, friends and servants who, almost one by one, disappear from the book though death, departure or emigration.
Harding hauntingly describes the differing aspects of the Romanian countryside over twenty years. The concreted, war-torn and ruined urban neighbourhood of the hospital and the city of Iasi, the rich agricultural land and forests of Safta's and Augustin's childhood, which reminded me very much of the landscapes of Isaac Levitan and, in particular of Savrasov's "The rooks have returned", and the countryside after the war as the two, now able to renew their friendship away from external prying eyes, are all described in beautiful, layered sentences which demand to be read slowly.
Intriguingly, Harding also uses Augustin/Ioan's drawings to translate the environment and his past to Safta and the reader, drawings made on any materials that he can gather, which are carefully folded away and protected, and which become increasingly complex as the novel develops. The author also provides the reader with information that subsequently has to be "explained" to Safta by Augustin/Ioan, so that the reader is constantly willing Safta to understand.
The author deftly changes between different narrative voices, Augustin first, then Safta. Given the former's disability, many characters feel sufficiently confident to share their thoughts and worries with him, including Safta. The over-arching fear within Ceaucescu's Romania of the 1950s, still something that I recall from travelling in Eastern Europe two decades later, is evident throughout; for example, in the readiness of a minor character, otherwise honourable, to inform the police about Ioan in the hope that this might help to release or reduce the sentences which his two daughters are serving.
The shifting wartime situation with confident German troops first travelling eastward into Russia, then returning demoralised after their defeat in the Great Patriotic War and, finally, the Russian troops heading westward are beautifully sketched. This is such a complex and complicated situation that Harding does well to leave it incomplete. It is for military historians, not the individual character, to understand and describe the grand sweep of the happenings on the Eastern Front.
The end of the story is rather too neatly rounded off for my liking - for example, Safta learning what became of Andrei and her fellow nurse finally understanding, or admitting to herself, her son's fate after watching a film about Stalingrad. However, the future is left open and even optimistic for the main characters. But for this, the author hardly puts a foot, or a word, wrong and several times has the confidence not to translate Romanian newspaper headlines or Communist slogans, leaving it to each reader to provide the wording from the overall context.
Thinking about this book later, it is very impressive just how much research must have gone into this novel. However, I never felt that I was being lectured nor that a scene was being set up "behind" the characters.
on 22 January 2013
Beautifully written book that pulled you in and kept you in it's world throughout.
For me it was a very vivid reading experience, I felt transported to Romania and had no trouble slipping between the two time frames the book describes - pre-WW2 and post WW2. She used past tense in the pre-war sections and present tense in the post-war sections and it worked seamlessly. Also the switch from Safta to Augustin's point of view worked without a jar or a falter. The world through Augustin's eyes was so cleverly described and so real.
This is a book I will keep and read again. Parts of it reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor's descriptions of his time spent in Romania before the war and the writer acknowledges him as an inspiration. Her writing style is very different to Fermor's but just as evocative and filled with sunshine.
A heart rending end that had me in tears. Baffling that this didn't win the Orange 2012 prize. I'll be reading her other two books now. Superb.
on 15 September 2013
It took me a few chapters go get into this book; at the beginning, I felt the story was too simple, almost familiar. Soon though, the beautiful descriptions of the romanian countryside in the summer, the different colours of the fields and of the sky and the palpable heat, pulled me into Tinu and Safta's world. Tinu is deaf and dumb, and it feels like we see the world through his heightened senses. The author does not tell us directly what any of the characters thinks and feels; rather, she lets us understand them through their actions. I like this more complex approach; throughout the book, Tinu draws a lot of pictures, his only means of expressing himself. We are shown these pictures too, they are described in detail, and yet again, there is no clear meaning to any of them that is given to the reader. We work out parts of his feelings and emotions, drawing on our own emotions as we would with a piece or art or a sketch seen in real life.
What pleased me most about the descriptions and the author's use of metaphors is that these seemed true to me. Indeed, they made me really take the time to stop and thing about the image she presented me with, and often these images resonated with my memories, how I had truly experienced an event. One passage particularly struck me: is in the city; in summer. Tinu's landlady is trying to sleep but there are dogs, lots of dogs, howling outside the window. This passage made me remember nights I have spent in the same situation, the somehow terrible randomness of the noise, the lack of pattern making it very difficult for the brain to ignore the sounds.
I really loved this book and strongly recommend it.
on 8 August 2013
This book wasn't really what I expected. I thought that as a reader we would be wondering who this man was who had turned up on the steps of a hospital. This was true initially, but we didn't make a discovery so much as the secret was, rather too quickly, revealed. It took away some of the mystery which I had expected to get from the book, and actually made it harder to get into than it could potentially have been. I was never at a point where I thought I would give up, but I wasn't very interested in it most of the way through, and tended to be doing other things when I would normally have been reading it. Consequently it took me quite a long time to finish.
It wasn't even exactly that it was a bad story. It just took a long time to get to a point in the story where I was interested. Generally speaking I found the background story the most interesting, but that story didn't really pick up until the war started, and more so after the war. In ways I found the most interesting parts were over a little quickly. One particular example is when Augustin is telling part of his story to Safta. It felt like a rather sketchy version of a story which would have interested me. It seemed like there could be a big story there, but because it was told through Augustin's pictures we only got the outline. The nature of the story didn't really make this needed. I can see wanting to take time to reveal the story. I can even see why Harding gave such a basic version. I just didn't like it!
The Painter of Silence was on the shortlist for The Woman's Prize for Fiction (formally The Orange Prize) last year, and I can see why. It has a style of writing which tends to be popular with literary prizes
Georgina Harding has a wonderful gift for the evocation of time, place and the physical heft and weave of life. I read, with absorption, her previous 2 novels The Spy Game,The Solitude of Thomas Cave where her use of language, her quiet and rich ability to really inhabit another person's truthful, unique inner landscape, was mesmerising.
With those earlier 2 books, I got so far, so very far, but could not go to the final 5th star, as something, in each case, did not completely work
With her third book, 5 stars seem mean!
Set in Romania, before the second world war, and finishing some years later, when grim, Stalinist Communism had placed other changes upon that country, her central character is a young, deaf mute baby at the start, child of a servant in the great house, and the parallel life this child, and the daughter of the great house, inhabit. Childhood in the house for both of the infants, who are close in age and in friendship, is described in ways which evoke the much written about Edwardian landscape of pre first world war England - except that we have a much more unchanged, less modern world, in Romania. The children grow, and Tinu, the young boy, finds ways of seeing, interpreting and communicating the world through drawings.
It is a fascinating book. The central character is wordless, and those around him find a strange freedom to share their thoughts because he cannot hear or speak them.
Although a huge narration is happening in the book - the large historical events, much of it a dreadful history, Harding does not dwell on the narrative - changes are experience by snapshot images - she is a real adept at show-not-tell - for example, the couple in the city, and the relationship of fear and control set up by the Party machinery. She does not describe the interior landscape of her characters in dramatic language, there are these quiet pictures, postures, details, which reveal everything.
She is a cool, unjudgemental, compassionate writer, with no self-indulgence, and her descriptions of the very texture and presence of trees, cups, paper, dust and the matter of things is powerful. Tinu, as child and man, really experiences the physicality of the world in a totally present, almost meditative way - and Harding makes the reader do the same
I am now buying one of her non-fiction books, as her ability to evoke other lands and times is so utterly magnificent.In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania