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Sarah Hall: The Electric Michelangelo

Hall’s second novel takes a different path from her first one, with one significant exception. The exception is that she plunges once more into Hilary Mantel territory, dealing with those on the margins in English society. She is, of course, a very different writer from Hilary Mantel, focusing on strong women and (almost) strong men, dealing with what life presents them. Cyril Parks, in this novel, is the son of Reeda, a widow (her husband was drowned in a storm while fishing, the day before Cyril was born). Reeda runs a boarding house in Morecambe, catering mainly for TB patients. Cyril helps her round the house, and helps with the TB patients, which does not appeal to him. He also has a couple of male friends of his age, who do the things boys usually do. Reeda is very hard-working, determined to help her guests, particularly those that are likely to die soon. But she also seems to run the odd sideline, which we see from Cyril’s perspective, one of which is clearly helping to provide illegal abortions.

We watch Cyril grow up and dealing with the usual problems – school, girls, some concern for his future. Initially, he is apprenticed to a printer where he does a reasonable job but does not particularly enjoy the work. One day, Eliot Riley, a nearby tattooist, accosts and offers him a position as an apprentice. Cyril’s initial reaction is to decline and, when he raises the issue with his mother, she agrees. But then he decide to chance it. He goes to the shop and watches Riley at work. Riley is a gruff, down-to-earth, outspoken man but clearly good at his job. Reeda comes around – to Cyril’s surprise she and Eliot seem to know each other well, the implication being that they may well have had an affair. Initially, indeed for a long time, Cyril is not allowed to do any tattooing but merely to help – mixing inks, taking the cash and cleaning up. He resents this but Riley is a difficult man. He soon acquires another task, that of dealing with Riley when he is too drunk to function. He often finds him around town in this state and has to take him home. But, eventually, his chance comes. As is happening more and more frequently, Riley is in a drunken stupor. A customer comes, wanting a simple tattoo. Cyril does it. Riley accept this and, from then on, he is allowed to do basic tattoos, either when Riley is out or he is dealing with another customer. But, inevitably, his mother dies and Cyril now moves in with Riley. His first major expenditure from his inheritance is bailing Riley out of jail when he has got into a fight. When Riley gets beaten up and is in a bad state, things get steadily worse. Gradually, more and more of the work falls on Cyril and, when Riley eventually and inevitably dies, Cyril finds that he has been named Riley’s next of kin. After burying Riley’s body at sea, he locks up the premises and heads off to Liverpool and a ship to the United States.

We next meet Cyril working at Coney Island, where many tattooists ply their trade. He is helped by others and soon adapts, more or less, to life in the United States. He has a small apartment where he is surprised at what seems to be the reflection of a horse in a nearby apartment. He mixes well with the other inhabitants of Coney Island and goes to the central meeting place where they play chess and drink a lot, Cyril in particular. He remains haunted by the ghost of Eliot Riley and, to a certain extent, the ghost of his mother. It is there that he meets Grace. Like him, she is an immigrant, though from Central Europe, speaking Polish and Hungarian. She plays chess well though, as one of the others says, too much like a woman at times. She is tall and works as a circus performer, with a horse, Maximus, who does, indeed, live in her apartment. Eventually, she comes to Cyril, who now calls himself the Electric Michelangelo, and ask him to cover her entire body in a tattoo. As he will later say, this is his Sistine Chapel. Inevitably, he will fall in love with her but, while there is certainly sexual banter between them, he behaves like a gentleman, even when faced with her naked body.

I certainly enjoyed this book and found it wonderfully inventive, both for the Morecambe scenes and Eliot Riley’s and Cyril Parks’ approach to what, for them, is clearly an important art form. However, Grace does not appear till around two thirds of the way through the book and what should be the focus, the creation of the tattoo on her body, is dealt with in what seems to be to be a relatively perfunctory way. Yes, we learn something of the work and we follow the discussions between artist and subject but we feel that we want to learn more about this Sistine Chapel. This is not a major criticism of what remains an excellent work and places Hall at the forefront of contemporary English novelists.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Faber & Faber