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How to Paint a Dead Man Paperback – 4 Jun 2009
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How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009.
About the Author
Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria in 1974 and now lives and works there. Her first novel, Haweswater, was published by Faber in 2002. Her second, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004. In 2007 Sarah won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize
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Hall successfully juggles four `stories' whose main protagonists `connect', but only loosely so, over a time span of about 50 years. A series of chapters, most movingly, charts the physical decline of Giorgio, a still-life painter of international repute. It is Giorgio who, in the extract quoted above, is teaching a group of children, including Annette Tambroni, the central figure in other chapters. Hall's description of Annette's loss of her eyesight is heartrending. As Giorgio points out, we all have an `inner eye'. Annette puts hers to good use in the artistic flower arrangement that she makes and sells at her local market. She is a genuine creative artist. The central characters of the other two stories are Peter and Sue Caldicutt, father and daughter, a landscape painter and photographer/gallery curator respectively. As a young man Peter has corresponded with Giorgio. In time, Peter has become well-known for painting `extreme' landscapes from first-hand experience. He is trapped by a rock fall on a sketching expedition in Cumbria. Whilst Peter tries to free himself, his chapters involve him in self-reflection on the notoriety that he has gained in his life-time as a hell-fire raiser. Primarily, Sue's series of chapters show her grieving for her dead brother. Hall's description of profound grief couldn't be bettered: in this case it's almost life-stopping.
`How to Paint a Dead Man' is rich emotionally but doesn't have the substance of `Haweswater' (Hall's first novel) to make it an entirely satisfying read. Thematically, `How to Paint a Dead Man' deals with the `big' issues as `life' and `death' but each story is too slight to be insightful on either issue. The novel's title is from Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's `The Craftsman's Handbook'. The handbook to which Hall refers provided practical advice on the craft of painting for 15th century apprentice painters. Giorgio's whole artistic life has involved him positioning a series of bottles in different ways. Annette arranges her flowers similarly. If you like, Annette Tambroni is Giorgio's `apprentice' Their `art' is very much `craft'. Peter's approach to art is different. Hall portrays him as more `stuntman' than `craftsman'. He has made his reputation and `big' money through canvasses of `severe mountain ridges' worked up from first-hand experience in the hills. Hall suggests that Peter's fame resulted in his daughter being admitted to Goldsmiths on lower grades than usual. Hall provides little evidence of Sue's prowess as a photographer so it is impossible to judge whether her art has merit. However, the exhibition that she is curating is inimical to the notion of `art' as `craft'. Instead of the art itself, the exhibition consists of objects associated with particular artists. So, for example, we have Van Gogh's handkerchief, Magritte's pipe and, ironically, a bottle donated by Peter that he claims was one of Giorgio's.
I`m not sure if my `reading' of `How to Paint a Dead Man' is correct. If I'm right, it's a pity that Hall didn't make it all so much clearer. Hall writes like an angel in the most mellifluous prose imaginable but that's not enough for me. For the novel's epigraph, Hall has chosen a quotation from the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard: `Things are not what they are, they are what they become'. I take the epigram to refer to craft. Wonderful writing like Hall's doesn't happen straight off, I bet. It will only `become' wonderful after a lot of craft and much graft. Maybe what Hall needs to do is hone her narrative to the same cutting edge as her style?
It is not an easy book to review; the basic subject-matter of the four narratives give little clue to the actual substance of the book. Indeed, even some way in to the book, one begins to wonder where it is all going, and the reader's persistence is only fully rewarded in the last 20 pages or so with the final section of each story. What kept me going in the meantime was the writing, which is incredibly expressive in an understated way. Many of the best passages in the book are slow burners: the real impact comes a few hours or a few days after reading them when a particular phrase or image echoes in your mind.
Although under 300 pages, this is a novel that requires a level of patience that not every reader will be willing to give it. I have the feeling it is also likely to provoked mixed responses. I can only say that I found it well worth it.