Sarah Hall – How To Paint A Dead Man

01Sep09


I wasn’t planning on reading the entire Booker long list, prior to the short list being announced. However, there were a couple of books that intrigued me, and Sarah Hall’s How To Paint A Dead Man was one of them. Initially, I was torn between Heliopolis (James Scudamore) and this one, but, I held both of them in my hand, and for some unexplainable reason, How To Paint A Dead Man just grabbed my attention a little bit more.

It’s a bizarre book, in terms of the plot (if you can call it that). The book works on alternating stories of four characters across different decades and places, who are loosely connected. Hence, the story continuously goes back and forth in time, exploring the characters, on each of the chapters.

There’s one set of chapters called The Mirror Crisis, which the book opens with. It introduces Susan, whose twin brother, Danny, has just passed away in an accident. The opening paragraph just won me over, and I knew I’d love the book, simply based on that.

You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of the kilter. You’re not sure what’s wrong exactly; it’s hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate. It isn’t grief. Grief would be simple. Something internal, something integral, has shifted. You feel lost from yourself. No. Absent. You feel absent. It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognize hosted within the glass.

Dealing with her twin’s loss, Susan finds comfort in the arms (and bed) of her friend’s husband, as she tries to deal with the shock of losing someone who was once a part of her – when she referred to everything as “We”, not “I”.

The second set of chapters is called Translated from the Bottle Journals goes back in time, to the life of an Italian artist, who is doing his final “masterpiece,” as he approaches his final few days.

And then you have the third, The Fool On The Hill, which comes back to the present (kind-of), and refers to Peter, Susan’s father. During his younger days, he would write to the Italian artist with ideas, and now, he’s a famous landscape artist. However, he’s abundant in his vulnerability, and is dealing with a mid-life crisis, trying to do his daughter proud. However, an accident leaves him trapped in the hills, with his left leg stuck, and as he struggles to get out, he reflects on his life, his first marriage, and how things have panned out.

And finally, you have The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni: another collection of chapters that goes back in time, and focuses on a young girl, who has lost her sight, and is now a flower seller. She was taught by the Italian when he was lecturing at school, and was a prized student. After his death, Annette, despite her blindness, continues to visit him (and her father) in the cemetery, and contemplates on the Bestia, a monster whose presence she keeps feeling around her.

The story just trickles on, and you’re lost in a world of beautiful writing, and heartbreaking narratives.

Of all the conditions we experience, solitude is perhaps the most misunderstood. To choose it is regarded as irresponsible or a failure. To most, it should be avoided, like an illness. Inside solitude people see the many compartments of unhappiness, like the comb of a pomegranate.

It gets difficult to read at times, due to the lack of continuity or relation between the four stories. However, I did end up feeling perfectly happy losing myself in the story, and sympathizing with the many actors. Times like this, I’m glad for things like the Booker long list, for I don’t think I would have picked up this book otherwise.

Rating: 4

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2 Responses to “Sarah Hall – How To Paint A Dead Man”

  1. The Booker long list has been amazing this year. The Glass Room, Heliopolis and this all captivated me. I would not have picked up any of these titles by myself, so am grateful to those judges.

    I didn’t think I’d like How to Paint a Dead Man, but it grabbed me from p1. I’m pleased to hear that you enjoyed it as much as me and I hope you pick up The Glass Room at some point – I think you’ll like that even more.

    • Oooh! The Glass Room wasn’t really on my radar. I’ve just ordered Little Stranger and Summertime, so might get it once I finish those two!

      Thanks for the heads up :)

      HTPADM intrigued me a lot, to be honest, but I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. Just the opening paragraph had me sold. I’m looking forward to reading The Electric Michelangelo as well.


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