Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

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Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A young, silent, bedraggled man walks into a hospital in 1950s Romania and collapses. He's a source of mystery to all the staff, apart from one nurse. She knows who he is and the reason for his silence. Gradually, by encouraging him to draw his memories, they relive their lives, his missing years and the shared secrets that could become a death sentence.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408821121

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

A young, anonymous, vagrant collapses on the steps of a hospital in Romania. He doesn't speak and remains a mystery to the staff that tries to treat his obvious symptoms but can't seem to reach the silent person beneath. However, Safta, a nurse, suggests that he may be deaf and produces drawing materials. Coincidentally, the man is able to draw beautifully, but this is no coincidence to Safta. There are reasons why she can't disclose it, but she knows this man. They grew up together in pre-war Romania, a whole world away when the country had a king, beautiful cities untouched by bombing and being able to read a foreign language wasn't punishable by imprisonment in work camps... or worse.

One of the great wonders of this novel is that the lives of Safta and Augustin shadow the biography of Romania from pre-war independence to the ravages of the World War II and then beyond into the savage, paranoid Communist state. It's not only the times that are beautifully encapsulated either.

Georgina Hardy forms the characters with realism and empathy. Augustin is similar to the reader in that he observes the whole story almost as an outsider. Only, his reasons for not feeling included are his world of silence and, in the beginning at least, his lowly birth. His only means of making himself understood are through his remarkable drawings and his enforced ability to keep confidences means he becomes the receptacle for others' secrets and dreams. Safta, on the other hand, is young, rich and carefree before the war encroached on her life, but she has always maintained a strong sense of loyalty towards the impoverished cook's son. Their personal development is fascinating. Their story is told in flashback and starting from childhood, the way in which they react to the demands of maturity and Romania's disintegration being as realistic as they are dramatic.

In fact the way their lives change is mind-boggling. The tone of pre-war Romania is optimistic and vivacious. The rich are more than happy with their lot, partying, touring Europe and attending to their God-given responsibilities. Their peasant servants (at least, those in this story) may be poor but they enjoy a certain security and acceptance. Augustin's mother is a deserted single parent but the family in the big house stand by her, guaranteeing her a job and home whilst ensuring Augustin has acceptance and protection. The only two servants in this novel who suffer pre-war insecurity are the governesses. I shall leave you to decide whether their sackings are just or whether they are merely products of their time.

As the war arrives and changes the world as a whole, Augustin and Safta don't escape. Safta's family flees, leaving behind the servants unfit for armed service to maintain the house and inadvertently serve raucous Russian soldiers who commandeer the house, with tragic results. There is still no respite from suffering for Romania at the end of the war. A real twist of fate occurs as the Communist oppression ensures that it's Safta who has to build walls of silence in order to survive. In her case the silence protects her past from her ironically carefree upbringing.

As in all great literature (yes, it's that good), Painter of Silence contains many themes. The obvious is the highlighting of man's inhumanity to man, no matter whether for the good of defending the nation or the supposed good of the state itself. However there are also more subtle undercurrents such as thoughts on the nature of silence and, indeed, the nature of speech and self-revelation. Does a person speak to inform others or to reassure the speaker? Please don't let this put you off though. This novel may have many levels, but its core is a stonking good story, lyrically told. Georgina Harding has skilfully composed a novel that will seep into your consciousness and refuse to leave.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read about the fall of the Romanian Communist regime, try The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness or, for something describing the effects of conflict as lyrically and effectively as Painter of Silence, try The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

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