Monday, 7 September 2009

How to Paint a Dead Man

This is my seventh review of the thirteen longlisted titles for this year's Man Booker Prize. The shortlist is announced tomorrow and as I am only just over halfway through reviewing them (by design, intending to read them all by Awards night on October 6th) I am unable to make an informed decision as to which six titles will feature. I do, however, have favourites that I hope make the cut: The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey, Heliopolis by James Scudamore, and the latest I've read, How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall.

Divided into four distinct and apparently disparate narratives, How to Paint a Dead Man is deftly structured. It is not plot-driven, by any means, but is an exceptionally well-written and compelling meditation on art and its relation to life and death. The first narrative strain, "The Mirror Crisis", is set in present-day London and written in the second-person with the narrator, Susan, referring to herself as "you", which at once includes the reader and distances the character from dark events. Susan is an artist and a curator of art exhibitions and her twin brother, Danny, has recently died; in her grief she loses herself in a torrid affair with her married work colleague. Hall says of this narrative, "I wanted a clear perspective/sound/identifier for each of the four voices. The second person is the most unusual device to employ in novel-writing, but I really liked using it: that imperative inclusiveness asks the reader to think and respond slightly differently, and in this instance it seemed perfect for Susan's story of dislocation and intimate confession." This was the section I liked best, both in narrative structure and dark content. The raw emotion and striking literary style had me gripped from the open paragraph.

The second narrative, "Translated from the Bottle Journals", takes place in Italy in the early 1960s and is told in the first-person. Giorgio, an isolated artist, is dying and contemplates the events in his life that have distanced him from people -strangers and acquaintances- over the years.

"The Fool on the Hill" in the third-person relates the story of Peter Caldicutt, an artist in Cumbria, thirty years after Giorgio's death, who becomes trapped in the Northern terrain, ironically the subject of his art and his fame. Peter wrote to Giorgio, the Italian artist and recluse, as a younger man and is also the father of Susan.

The fourth and final alternating narrative is "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni", which is also told in the third-person narrative; the latter two narratives are the ones I was engrossed in least, perhaps due to that authorial distance. Annette is a blind girl and was a student of Giorgio; she is an artist in her own right, a flower arranger, and her story is the most spiritual, religious, and surreal.

There is a very thin connection between the four narratives: Giorgio is connected to Peter and Annette; Peter to Giorgio and Susan; all four characters are artists and each narrative concerns a defining moment in their existence.

Whilst reading this, my seventh of the Booker longlist, I was struck by a similarly loose connection and cohesion to the nominees. Peter Caldicutt calls to mind Jake, the architect and protagonist with Alzheimer's in The Wilderness; Hall strongly writes two male characters, and Harvey creates Jake; Scudamore also has a memorable male narrator in Heliopolis and Sarah Waters creates her first in Dr Faraday. There are also, of course, the memorable alpha Cheeta and the character John Ceotzee, J. M. Coetzee's fictioneer. Perhaps coincidental but there is apparently a common theme of maleness amongst this year's choices. Whatever their similarities, I foresee How to Paint a Dead Man making it to the shortlist tomorrow.

The funny thing is, you've been thinking so long and hard about death that you've lost sight of its fraternal twin, its obverse pole. This is the prerogative of grief you suppose. There have been times you've not realised you were crying, until you put your hand to your face and it came away wet, until you noticed that someone was looking at you curiously, the concerned stranger on the train, or the woman in the supermarket who offered you a tissue. You have been so consumed that you've almost forgotten about the other side, the affirmation, the positive stroke. Life.

In these preparatory passages there is also a section on how to paint a dead man. I have often wondered if the condition of death is perhaps less grave to the human anatomy than physical injuries. For in death there is release from suffering. Sadly, the master craftsman is unable to instruct us in the healing of wounds.


amye said...

Yes, I think you liked this much better than me. I liked it, but it took reading other's people's thoughts about it for it to really come together. (Susan is also loosely connected to Annette via Tom)

Paperback Reader said...

Amy, I find that reading other people's thoughts to sometimes allow me to appreciate a novel more.
I missed the connection between Susan and Annette although I do remember questioning the fact that he was Italian and the significance of the detail about his mother. Thanks for letting me know!

farmlanebooks said...

I would love to see this book on the short list, but I don't think it will make the cut. The writing was amazing, but I didn't really see the point of it. I don't know why I love it so much when I don't understand the reasoning behind it, but without the narratives being connected I struggle to see it being short listed. I can't wait to find out tomorrow!

Paperback Reader said...

I suspect that the ones that do seem pointless or where the point is too complex for the reader to discern -like this, Summertime, and possibly The Quickening Maze- will be the ones that will make the shortlist. I'm definitely looking forward to the announcement, whatever the outcome!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see this book on the shortlist as well, just because it's so wonderfully written, and it literally forced me to love it, with the opening paragraph. The first quote of your review is amazing as well.

I'm starting Summertime tomorrow (finally), so looking forward to that.

Have only read one other book on the shortlist (The Wilderness), so I don't really have any predictions, but, am looking forward to tomorrow (the shortlist announcement) as well.

Nymeth said...

I had forgotten that the short list was going to be announced tomorrow - I can't wait to see who makes the cut. Anyway, I actually have a thing for books of interconnected stories (even if the connections are loose), so I'm very curious about this one!

Green Road said...

I've heard a lot of good things about this book, but equally people struggle to put their finger on exactly why they liked it. That's the reason why I'm most intrigued by this book from the entire longlist.

I too can't wait for the shortlist to be announced.

Tony said...

Still not happy that Tim Winton's 'Breath' didn't make the cut - stupid English jury [says the expat Englishman :)].

Diane said...

Great review. This one is on my list!

verity said...

This does sound like an interesting one; I really must have a look at it as I can't figure out how thsoe 4 different parts would fit together and work!

Paperback Reader said...

anothercookie, the writing is exceptional, especially in The Mirror Crisis sections.

I hope you enjoy Summertime as much as I did. I'm still thinking about it; it is such a rich, deep, and complex book.

Ana, I'm very excited about the shortlist.

Have you read Olive Kitteridge? that's a book of vaguely interconnecting stories; I'll be reviewing it shortly.

Swati, I have difficulty putting my finger on it too; it's the writing and the fact that somehow it works, I think.

Tony, I'll need to read Winton's Breath, on your recommendation!

Diane, I hope you enjoy it.

Verity, the four narratives don't really fit but somehow they work; by rights they shouldn't but they do. It's an interesting one.