How to Paint a Dead Man

Sarah Hall
faber and faber

An Afrikaans version of this review appeared in Rapport, 7 February 2010

Sarah Hall has achieved astonishing acclaim in her four-novel career. Her first, Haweswater,  won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Novel. The Electric Michaelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, while The Carhullan Army won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2007. It is easy to see why – her prose is intelligent and lyrical, beautifully weighted, while in How to Paint a Dead Man she takes risks with narrative structure that that mostly come off, allowing more breathing space than better structured novels might.

How to Paint a Dead Man presents four separate narratives. A dying Italian artist keeps a journal. A sensitive, gifted child (daughter on an Italian florist) goes blind. She believes that she is haunted by the ‘Bestia’, a monstrous creature who has leaked out of an altar painting in the nearby Church of San Lorenzo. A famous English landscape painter, a man of outrageous personality, gets his foot trapped in a rock in an isolated gorge. His daughter survives the death of her twin brother, but feels shorn of identity in consequence. She attempts to recover from his absence by sinking into a world of sexual experimentation. One might well ask how this all converges.

The  links between these four narratives are delicate at best, sometimes verging on the tendentious. What unites them is the reflection that each narrative mounts on the fragile value of life, and the rich inwardness it generates for each character. What separates them (appropriately) is the distinct and consistent voice which Hall achieves for each one. What really captivated me most is the narrative arc she deploys in each case: she stops on the climactic point but refuses to descend into resolution. I felt that this is a courageous and interesting structure, albeit one that never quite becomes polyphony. Some readers might feel cheated of closure. I would argue, however, that the reflective substance of the novel does not require any more than the slender resolution it does provide.

The lyrical style and reflective method do feel static in places, gorging this reader on too much mannered beauty. I also found the English landscape painter of outrageous personality irritating – not his voice so much as the voice Hall gives his narrative. Apart from these quibbles, How to Paint a Dead Man is an exquisite and rewarding novel.