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Sarah Hall: How to Paint a Dead Man

Critics were not sure what to make of this novel. They called it poetic and said that she writes like a painter, dabs of paint here and there. Their point is very much taken. The story is fractured, almost bitty, and nothing is brought to a conclusion. While there is a plot, it is not a key part of this novel. There are two mains stories, each with two separate components, which have only a tenuous connection to one another. In short, it is a painterly novel. Its theme is art and life and how the two impinge on one another.

Peter Caldicutt is a brash Northerner, but also a successful painter. His painting is very much influenced by stone, the stone of his Northern origins. He is something of a character, a drinker, a user of marijuana and somewhat irresponsible, almost a caricature of the public’s view of a painter. He has lived in the United States, where he was married to Raymie. He is now married to Lydia and they have twins, Danny and Susan. Much of the bit about him concerns both his painting but also his irresponsible behaviour, which he has transmitted to Danny. A significant part of his story is when he was out walking on the moors, he slipped and fell and his leg was trapped in a crevice and he could not get it out.

The heroine, if there is one, is Susan. She is an artist and photographer. She works in a gallery, where she is currently curating an exhibition of articles that belonged to famous artists. She lives with Nathan, who wants to marry her but she does not want to marry him. She is having an affair with Tom, co-owner of the gallery with his wife Angela. Neither Angela nor Nathan are aware of this affair. When she was very young, she identified so much with Danny that their parents were worried and took her to a doctor. She felt what he felt (and, to a certain extent, vice versa). However this has reduced in recent years, so much so that when Danny, once again behaving irresponsibly, is killed in a motorcycle accident, she is unaware of it till her father phones her to tell her the sad news. A considerable part of her story is her reaction to Danny’s death.

The other part of the story takes place in Italy. Signor Giorgio – we do not know his surname – is a famous painter. He had painted bottles, many bottles, nothing but bottles, in recent years, though we do learn that he had painted seashells, landscapes (stolen by the retreating Germans at the end of the war) and self-portraits in earlier years. His connection with Peter is that Peter seems to have written to him (though he could not reply, as Peter did not give an address). I say seems as it is not completely certain that the Peter who wrote to him over a long period of time was the same Peter but it seems highly likely, not least because Peter has one of the famous bottles, which he gives to Susan for the exhibition she is curating. For much of the novel he is dying of cancer.

Annette Tambroni is at school where Signor Giorgio gives art lessons to the pupils and he recognises that she has some talent. Unfortunately, she has an incurable eye disease and goes blind by the time she is in her early teens. She becomes a flower seller but also tends graves, in particular those of her father and Signor Giorgio. She learns to feel the world a different way but struggles with it. In particular she is concerned about the Bestia, an undefined fear, which may manifest itself as a beast, which may be sexual feelings and which she knows she will have to confront. She has a brother, Tommaso, who may be the Tom Susan has an affair with (he is Italian) but, if that is the case, we are given no indication of it.

Hall has written a complex, poetic novel about how art and life mesh and collide. She has not tried to make it easy either for the reader or for the characters, who all struggle with their lives and their art. An artist may have a twin, may get cancer, may go blind or may fall down a crevice but he or she remains an artist while dealing with life. This is going to be one of those novels that disappear, as people find it too difficult to cope with, or will be recognised as a thoroughly original work of art. I am going for the latter.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Macmillan