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5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth while reading to the end, 23 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: Painter of Silence (Paperback)
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.
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Dr R
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