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How to Paint a Dead Man: A Novel Paperback – September 8, 2009
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
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The lives of four individualsâa dying painter, a blind girl, a landscape artist, and an art curatorâintertwine across nearly five decades in this luminous and searching novel of extraordinary power. With How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall, "one of the most significant and exciting of Britain's young novelists" (The Guardian), delivers "a maddeningly enticing read . . . an amazing feat of literary engineering" (The Independent on Sunday).
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This is a book about art and artists, about life and grief. It is about "how we investigate our existence and make meaning and teach one another in small and large ways". The book is like a chorale woven of four parts, each part about a different artist. The composition of the book is much like a chorale in music with each artist playing a different role in the book.
There is Suzi, a curator and photographer, who is so lost in her grief for her dead twin and mentor, Danny, that she has lost herself. No matter what extremes she goes to in order to feel alive, her grief is pervasive and overriding. In fact, the emotion is so strong that she denies it is grief. "You're not sure what's wrong exactly; it's hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate. It isn't grief. Grief would be simple. Something internal, something integral, has shifted. You feel lost from yourself. No. Absent. You feel absent. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognize hosted within the glass." Hall's descriptions of grief are the most profound and poignant I have ever read. The poignancy is reflected in the demise of the human spirit as it searches to be reborn.
Annette is a blind Italian florist, caught up in the visions in her head. Despite her mother's attempts to keep her childlike, she blooms , much like the flowers she loves. She sees beauty in others, senses colors, and is empathic. She imagines the world in all its sensory glory and has been deeply influenced by Giorgio, the artist who taught in her school when she was a child. Years after his death, she still brings flowers to his grave.
Giorgio is an elderly Italian artist of some renown. His character is based on that of the actual artist, Giorgio Morandi, known for his exquisitely shaded paintings of bottles. Giorgio lives a reclusive life but is influential in mentoring a young landscape artist named Peter.
Peter's landscape art takes him to the brink of danger, and the very landscape that he loves and is the source of his inspiration, becomes a threat to his life. He is Suzi and Danny's father and has been Suzi's mentor. He himself, an over-the-top, expressive human being has been mentored distantly by Giorgio who is one of the most disciplined of artists.
This is a book about art and artists. It examines the discipline of art - - its freedom and passion along with the sense of release that art provides. It also explores art as an entrapment. Art is both the seen and unseen, the visible and the visualized. Though the book takes place in different times and different places, through different voices, it all comes together in the unfolding relationships between artists and mentors.
This is a book to savor, one that is a page-turner and also one that must be read slowly. It is one of the best books I have read this decade. I highly recommend Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Suri Hustvedt's book, What I Loved: A Novel, for those who enjoy 'How to Paint a Dead Man'.
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. But clues gradually emerge. The sections with Susan seem to be contemporary; those with Giorgio are roughly mid-sixties (Morandi died in 1964); the other two fall somewhere in between. You also begin to discover connections between the four, some relatively close, others little more than a thread; I won't explain these, because there is great pleasure in the discovery. Hall gradually reveals more of each person's inner life, moving backwards in the case of the two men, and forward for the women. Giorgio, it seems, was a Fascist sympathizer until something happened to turn him in the opposite direction. Peter's second wife is as different as possible from his first, a relationship born in the cauldron of drug-culture Liverpool, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. Annette's blindness coincides with her coming into womanhood, those confusing discoveries only complicated by a prudish and protective mother. And Susan works through grief by turning to illicit sex, shocking at first but brilliantly evoked.
It is not a perfect book. Relatively little actually happens in it, and there are chapters (with Peter especially) which seem to hang fire. It is satisfying to see the four portraits getting filled out, but you want to see more of the background than the author shows you; you want to see them calling to one another from behind their frames; you want to know why the author has hung them on the same wall. Eventually, most of these questions will be answered, but not all of them; the rightness of the book is to be found in the mind of the reader, not in revealed fact. Sarah Hall has written a novel that honors her readers' intelligence, and assumes that they can make their own connections, thematic or literal. That in itself deserves five stars.
Most recent customer reviews
able to see some of the relationships between the stories.