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How to Paint a Dead Man: A Novel Paperback – September 8, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Stunning visual descriptions link the stories of four artists in crisis in Hall's fourth novel (after Daughters of the North), but marginal, cross-generational relationships are what ground the book. Giorgio is a well-known painter and hermit in Italy in the 1960s, the near-blind Annette his favorite primary school student. Peter is a 50-something landscape artist in England, and Peter's daughter, Susan, a talented photographer and curator. Giorgio has cancer and for his final days tackles one last painting of his constant subject, colored bottles. Soon after his death, Annette tends his grave, innocent and fearful and now completely blind, fearing imaginary things like the Bestia—a demon that is depicted in her church. Thirty years later, Peter, who corresponded with Giorgio, is pinned under a boulder near his cottage, and contemplates the haunting relationship he had with his ex-wife, while in present-day London, Susan searches for feeling (through sex) after the sudden loss of her twin brother. Hall gracefully conveys a sense of the eternal through these imaginative, disconnected creatures who share the same unrelentingly contemplative disposition. (Sept.)
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Review

“Sarah Hall is a huge talent. Her third novel, How To Paint A Dead Man, is a beautiful, powerful book of love, lust, death, passion, art, desperation and loss. She writes her characters brilliantly.” (Bookseller (London), “Bookseller's Choice, June 2009”)

“Invigorating….her verbal depiction of fictional art never stales…This deeply sensual novel is what you rarely find - an intelligent page-turner which, perversely, you also want to read slowly to savour Hall’s luscious way of looking at the world.” (The Sunday Telegraph)

“Her latest novel, even more than ever, reads as though it was an absolute thrill to write....a maddeningly enticing read...an amazing feat of literary engineering.” (The Independent on Sunday "New Review")

“Daring...Along with contemporaries like Scarlett Thomas and Lydia Millet, Hall is staking new ground for women in the “novel of ideas” category. Full of haunting images and thought-provoking ideas, How to Paint a Dead Man will linger in the mind.” (BookPage)

“In this gorgeous still life of a book, Sarah Hall gives us four lives…each narrated in a different voice…Hall has a poet’s gift, and this novel is best enjoyed as a prose poem whose blindingly beautiful insights gradually accrue…She has made visible to us…the ever-present shadow of eternity.” (Washington Post Book World)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 289 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; First Edition edition (September 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061430455
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061430459
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,054,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By KasaC VINE VOICE on September 17, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There are four disparate strands to this muscular rope of a book, apart at the beginning but ultimately woven together to create a story that promotes the importance of art in life. Each strand is set in a different time, written in a different style, the author challenging the reader to make the connections and draw their own conclusions. There is Suze's story, told in the second person, which is the most compelling, seemingly the centerpiece of the narrative. The story of her father, Peter, is told through his reflections while he is caught, trapped, overnight on the fells. Both Suze and Peter are artists, active in the art world, and it is Peter's connection to Georgio, an Italian artist, that sets in motion the other two narratives. This book was long listed for the Man Booker award, but didn't make the final cut to the short list. As I haven't been able to read the five that did, I can't make a comparison except to say they must be quite remarkable to have beaten out this seductively readable, highly original work.
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Sarah Hall is an ambitious writer. Evidence of this abounds in her first book, Daughters of the North-a post apocalyptic novel. In How to Paint a Dead Man, Hall's ambition is still very much alive, yet less effective.

How to Paint a Dead Man weaves together four different stories: a photographer coping with the loss of her twin brother, a quirky landscape artist in a dangerous situation, a dying man who paints bottles in seclusion, and a blind girl. Each story introduces different philosophical questions about art (i.e., what is it? Does it mean anything? What makes an artist?) all of them compelling and never entirely answered.

Susan speaks in second person, which I've always found to be an engaging, albeit presumptuous, POV. When she and her twin brother were children, she couldn't distinguish herself from him. She has a hard time figuring out who "I" is. And after his death, by using "you" she distances herself from her bereavement; the second person also intimately connects her to the reader. She neglects her photography and strikes up an affair. In her urgent need to be outside of herself, she creates and destroys indiscriminately.

The landscape artist, Peter, falls between two boulders while trying to paint on a mountainside. While stuck, he reflects on his previous disastrous marriage and his life as an artist. Peter is an extremely odd character; the way Hall handles Peter's scattered personality and darkly shrouded past seems like commentary on modern day artists.

Giorgio is an old man and a very famous painter of bottles. He lives hermit-like on a hilltop and has infrequent visitors. His guilt about his Jewish wife's death causes him to become absorbed in his work.
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It is inexplicable to me how Harper Perennial, the publishers of this deeply serious novel, could have given it such a frivolous cover! The cartoon drawing of a girl dancing down a hillside with hair flying suggests a carefree romp, not the meditation on loss and perception that Sarah Hall gives us here. And it is certainly no preparation for a novel centered so much in the visual world, in which three of the four principal characters are artists. One of these (though acknowledged only in the front matter) is based on the painter Giorgio Morandi, probably the most fastidious Italian painter of his generation, whose mature work, heedless of contemporary Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, consisted entirely of paintings of bottles, meticulously arranged in a luminous opalescence.

While Hall's writing about art shows her love for the medium, her real subject is human feeling, and especially the way emotions can be aroused and distorted by the passage of time, the loss of possibilities, the ending of a life. Four protagonists take turns in the spotlight in a repeating sequence of short chapters. There is Giorgio not-quite-Morandi on his hilltop in Italy, working even as his death approaches. There is Peter, a landscape painter of rocks and mountains in the Northwest of England near the Scottish Border. There is Susan, a successful photographer in London, shocked by the death of her fraternal twin brother. And there is Annette Tambroni, an Italian teenager whose own sense of vision turns inward as she goes inexorably blind.

At first this is all you know. You have no idea why the author chose these four people and not others. You have only a dim sense of the time-frame.
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Where does one begin with describing an almost perfect novel? Four stories intertwined thematically to create a pure discourse concerning art, love, death, and loss. Four characters whose final fates are as disparate as could be imagined and yet as seemingly intertwined as a family history. Giorgio, the Italian painter who in final stages of his life and career teaches art to Annette, the flower selling girl who about to become blind. His pure stoicism and her pure courage are almost what used to be called saintly heroism. Peter the middle aged artist and his daughter Suze who are dealing with the death of a sibling and in Peter's case death itself. One attempts to lose himself in his art, the other Suze, the photographer in torrid but casual sex.

I called it a perfect novel, because there is no sensationalism, stock cliches or melodrama here. I defy many writers today to pull it off. I won't go into the themes of aesthetics, perceptions, grief, fear of death or loss of innocence. Suffice it to say that even the secondary characters are essential and believable. Having read the book three times in the past year, I intend to do so again.
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