Before picking up Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2009, I was only familiar with her short stories. She is an author whom I have heard an awful lot of praise for, although I must admit that I was rather disappointed by her collection The Beautiful Indifference. I am thrilled that I received a copy of How to Paint a Dead Man as a gift, however, as it proved to be one of the most beautiful novels which I had read in a long time.
Historical fiction author Sarah Dunant calls How to Paint a Dead Man ‘a stylish novel, as replete with ideas as it is technically ambitious’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘an intelligent page-turner which, perversely, you also want to read slowly to savour Hall’s luscious way of looking at the world.’
The novel has four interconnected storylines at its heart. In Italy in the early 1960s, a dying painter ‘considers the sacrifices and losses that have made him an enigma, both to strangers and to those closest to him’. We also meet a young blind girl, who sells family-grown flowers in a busy marketplace, and tends to the painter’s grave. The other threads here are set in England; that of a painter in Cumbria some years later, who ‘finds himself trapped in the extreme terrain that has made him famous’, and his daughter in present-day London, who is struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her twin brother, and ‘finds herself drawn into a world of darkness and sexual abandon.’ How to Paint a Dead Man thus spans half a century, and is described in its blurb as ‘a fierce and brilliant study of art and its place in our lives.’
The varied perspectives which Hall has employed in the novel ensure that every single page is of interest, and the separate stories never become too similar. The second person perspective which follows the daughter living in contemporary London is particularly striking: ‘You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident… 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 recognise hosted within the glass.’
How to Paint a Dead Man is highly descriptive throughout. Hall’s prose is highly sensual, and very evocative of place. When introducing the painter and the limits imposed upon him by both illness and ageing in his secluded corner of Italy, Hall comments: ‘To begin each day there is only the wind, asking to come in from the north before even the daylight. It is a rolling wind, excitable as it prepares to leave the continent. Some mornings I will accompany the wind to the road above the town. It helps me to unstiffen. There is sciatica in my legs and my breathing these days is somewhat impaired. Really I can do no more than amble.’ Nature is ever-present, and so beautifully observed, in the novel. Hall later writes: ‘It’s apparent that this is the changeover season. He can feel summer’s end. There’s the memory of frost down in the earth’s membranes. The northern rivers are carrying a message to the Solway that winter is coming.’
So many themes suffuse this novel; at its heart are art and loss, and the many forms which both can take. There is a definite rawness to it at times, and real wisdom in what Hall considers and explores. She muses, for instance: ‘To expose what was broken and re-cast in a composition is to reveal the fallibility of an artist. The spilled varnish and the misaligned hand, the lost saint and the irregular ghost pavement. All those errors and adjustments in the studies of the past. And in us – the chips and fractures and tumours, the flaws in our exceptional design. Truth has become a hunted thing, but it is eternally insubstantial. The philosophers have always known this.’
Hall is so understanding of what it means to be human, and how life can affect a cast of characters in such different ways. She is conscious of each of her characters and their troubles. Particularly poignant are the observations which she makes about Annette, the blind girl. ‘If,’ says Hall, she ‘did not know what people looked like, if she had not ever seen them before, she would think they were fantastical compositions – part-insect, part-crockery, with wings made of gossamer or tin, with whiskers, hooves… so unlike tidy, soft-skinned creations do they sound.’ Hall’s prose which concerns Annette is tender and kind. She writes: ‘Though her eyes were blind, inside a compartment of her head she could still see. She could imagine the room exactly as it had been before the sickness, her dresser with its beaded cloth, the washstand, and the low beams in the ceiling from which Uncle Marcello had strung the honeysuckle. She could imagine her shoes arranged neatly, side by side, their laces tucked inside the leather openings, and, on the window seat, the pot of marigolds peeking out from their green heads.’
At less than 300 pages, Hall has created a real masterpiece in How to Paint a Dead Man. Her fourth novel is searingly beautiful, and offers so much to the reader. The different characters, time periods and places are woven together with a strong sense of commonality – that of the art world, and what can be considered beautiful. Whilst reading, I felt entirely present in each of the stories, and there was not a single second in which I was not entirely convinced by what Hall had set before me.
Compelling and gorgeously pieced together, How to Paint a Dead Man is a transporting novel, which strikes a wonderful balance between the natural and manmade worlds in which its characters live. Hall’s prose is textured and precise, and this novel is a real delight to sink into. Each of its stories are so alive and so resonant, and I imagine that they will stay with me for a long time yet.