How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

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How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Kate Lord Brown
Reviewed by Kate Lord Brown
Summary: A visceral exploration of art, love, loss and the human condition.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571224890

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Sarah Hall's powerful fourth novel interweaves the story of four lives linked by art. In 1960s Italy, Giorgio, a celebrated artist facing the end of his life contemplates his enigmatic reputation and his personal tragedies. A young blind flower seller who was his pupil faces her greatest fear – the Bestia, a terrifying creature painted on her local church's altarpiece. More recently, Peter – a landscape artist who corresponded with Giorgio, finds himself trapped by the very land that inspires him. Finally Susan, Peter's daughter and a talented photographer/gallerist tries to come to terms with the sudden death of her twin brother Danny, and loses herself in a dark world of sexual experimentation.

This book is staggeringly accomplished and unsettling. Hall juggles four story lines: 'The Mirror Crisis' (Susan), 'Translated from the Bottle Journals' (Giorgio), 'The Fool on the Hill' (Peter), and 'The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni', rotating them in turn. Some reviews have suggested they are really independent short stories and could be read individually, but I think that is missing the point. With a book like this, you sense that the characters are linked, and part of the pleasure is watching the clues fall into place, the stories overlapping like petals on the flowers Annette sells, and figuring out exactly how they are related. As the tale of each character reaches its conclusion with an escalating sense of tragedy, even that which appears to be redemptive is not. Taboos are broken, boundaries pushed to the limit. As Susan says at one point 'People will always touch that which is forbidden'.

What sets this book apart is the lush prose - heady, resonant, visceral. There is no let up (I had to put the book down a few times!). Hall delineates her characters clearly, from Susan's existential angst and search for identity (which reminded me of 'Nausea'), to Annette's sensual descriptions of the narcotic scent of flowers. Imagine the sensory pleasure of sniffing an armful of lilies in an Italian market – incense, flesh, overpowering but intoxicating. That's how I felt about this book. Tongues are so dry they sound like sticks snapping. A seashell is bathed by its own interior light. Corsets are drawn tight enough to grind pepper. How many books have made you wince recently through the sheer physical descriptions of pain?

Every page sings with luminous detail. This is not a book to skim through or consume in one sitting (if you did, I imagine the sensation would be like gorging on sweet, tropical fruit). It is laced with a sense of danger and threat, an unflinching dissection of the sublime and the bestial. Hall explores big themes, from art, (through still life … one can establish the true essence of what painting is about), to the generation gap (yeah, yeah, yeah, Peter, the sixties, old hat). It is above all a novel about obsession – with truth, beauty, sex, art. Giorgio has obsessively painted the same group of bottles for years – and one of these turns out to be the physical link between the four individuals.

The title intrigues me – as a postscript we are instructed 'How to Paint a Dead Man' by Cennini. I wonder if it also refers to the attempts to mythologise the artist Giorgio, and Susan's attempts to come to terms with the loss of her twin, Danny? As Giorgio says sadly the master craftsmen is unable to instruct us in the healing of wounds.

If you are searching for a book about the brutality and beauty of life, this is the novel for you. Hall is a young writer at the top of her game. Her previous three novels (Haweswater, The Electric Michelangelo, and The Carhullan Army), are all award winning, and I would not be surprised to see How to Paint A Dead Man join them.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you'll enjoy The Carhullan Army.

Booklists.jpg How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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Buy How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall at


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