Book Reviews

Bold Novel Of Art, Ideas And One 'Dead Man'

'How To Paint A Dead Man'
How To Paint A Dead Man
By Sarah Hall
Paperback, 320 pages
Harper Perennial
List price: $14.99
Read An Excerpt

"You aren't feeling like yourself."

It's bold to open a book with the word "you," even bolder to keep a quarter of it in the second person. But this is what British novelist Sarah Hall does — writes fearless books, paints enormous canvases and wrestles with large issues like identity, art, violence and death. The fact that she does it with such control lets the reader know the journey is going to be worth the emotional commitment.

How to Paint a Dead Man weaves together the time-shifted stories of four visual artists, all at crisis points in their lives and not quite feeling like themselves. Giorgio, a painter in Umbria, is struggling to finish one last painting before his emphysema overtakes him. In passages set a few years later, his student Annette has gone blind and is living a life completely controlled by her fearful, strictly religious mother. Peter, a former correspondent of Giorgio's and now a renowned Cumbrian painter with a monstrous ego, spends a lonely night trapped in a ravine after an accident, some 30 years after Giorgio's death. After Peter's wounds have healed, his son Danny dies, and Danny's twin, Susan, the "you" of Chapter 1, is unmoored by her grief and unsure of who she is without the reflection of her brother.

If it all sounds a little confusing in synopsis, it's perfectly clear in the novel itself. Hall is skillful enough to make the leaps in time and space flow easily, and there are unobtrusive, hidden clues linking one chapter to another. A bottle, the subject of one of Giorgio's paintings, finds its way into the hands of each of the four artists. There are other tricks — Giorgio's chapters are meant to be translated sections from his journals, and somehow the text reads as if it had been translated from Italian into English.

Sarah Hall i

Sarah Hall's novel Haweswater won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. Sandi Friend hide caption

toggle caption Sandi Friend
Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall's novel Haweswater won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book.

Sandi Friend

To her credit, Hall is not a writer in love with her own brilliance. How to Paint a Dead Man may be clever in its structure and style, but it is deeply concerned with its protagonists and their traumas. As with any book this heavily populated, there will be some characters the reader connects to more strongly than others. I was perhaps most taken with Susan, who is acting out her pain in an affair with a married man. But all four characters and the questions their stories raise — What is the purpose of art? How is it different for the viewer and for the artist? How does one crawl through pain to create again? — will stay with me for some time to come.

Excerpt: 'How To Paint A Dead Man'

How To Paint A Dead Man
By Sarah Hall
Paperback, 320 pages
Harper Perennial
List price: $14.99

The Mirror Crisis

You've been trying to cope, for the sake of your parents. For the sake of your involuntary breath, and your heart, which bangs on without consent. To all intents and purposes, and to all appearances, you are functioning adequately. You get up in the morning, wash yourself, walk to the gallery, and work. You are not lying in your own faeces, howling at strangers in the street. You are accepting things. You even bought a book on bereavement. You found yourself in the self-help section of Waterstone's last week, pulling a pale pink volume off the shelf. The next thing you knew the salesgirl was running it through the till, taking your card, asking you to check the amount and type in your PIN. Maybe you thought this would provide the key to recovery. Maybe you thought it would give you a step-by-step approach to grieving, a register delicate enough to describe the qualities of your grief. It wasn't much use. None of it rang true. None of it made sense. The words passed in front of your eyes and failed to describe your position. So you got rid of it - gave it away to the Oxfam on the heath. What were you thinking? That you could study death as if it was a pregnancy, or a carpentry course? That you could find the 'lost fraternal twin' chapter and make notes in the margin? That it would actually help?

You want to be helped. You want to experience your life. You want to feel yourself again; the owner not just of muscles, connective tissues, nerve endings and senses, but of a soul, and a familiar personality. You want to feel inhabited. In lieu of this you'll take any transaction: pain, discomfort, cold, upset - anything. You've been trying to jumpstart your atoms; shock them into life again. It's what they do in hospitals after all - the gelid paddles on the chest, and then lightning shot into the unresponsive core. You've pinched your skin red. You've skipped meals, whole days without food, until you are starving. Only then would you eat; blue cheese, raw fish: anything with a strong taste. You've begun to eat meat again after a decade of being vegetarian. You eat it rare, savouring the wet iron on your tongue. Venison. Liver. In the grocery store your eye lingers over the stocky red slabs, bound with rind, vacuum-packed in white trays. When you arrive home, there they are at the bottom of your shopping bag, weeping pinkly against the plastic pane.

You've tried to provoke emotion. You've said cruel things to people you know - Angela, your colleague at work, and your partner Nathan - as if wanting a fight. You've seen the startled looks on their faces. Their expressions turning to pity. They hug you, and apologise, as if responsible for your outburst, as if excusing your behaviour. You're hurting, aren't you, they say. You're missing him.

You were offered time off from the gallery after the accident, which was kind of Angela, but you haven't taken it. Instead you've been erratic, not turning up, or giving short notice for impromptu trips back up north. And you've let your photography slide too: lucrative commissions remain unfinished, your Leica and the pricey digital sit in the kit bag in the spare room; you've lost money on the unused studio, and your films are tucked away at the back of the refrigerator behind the butter and bacon. There is enough art-world gossip for people to know what has occurred to your family, for them to extend consideration. Recently, Nathan told you that you'd woken up in the night crying, and hitting him, but you didn't remember doing it. The patience granted in the wake of Danny's death has been nothing if not remarkable.

You don't deserve it. You've behaved worse than this. You've found that there is something that can make you feel, and make you feel present: sex. Not the routine, dusk-and-dawn sex of a trusted, established relationship, but illicit, dangerous sex. Sex that is novel and leaves you sore; that is experienced in the gaps between your mundane, moral life; that is strange and breathless and addictive.

You have been seeing someone else. You've discovered this man is capable of creating that hot primary yearning from the cervix down. There have been several indiscretions to date. You want there to be more. You want the skin and the smell and the taste and the movement of him. His beautiful mouth, his top lip shaped like a bird in flight. The anise of his fluids. Him made hard and pushed inside you. You understand the risks, the damages, but they seem irrelevant. This is right for you; he lets you remember what it is to be human.


You and your partner Nathan have been together for six years. There are days you are sure you love him, and days you are indifferent towards him. Oddly, the moments of desire you have experienced with this other man are the moments in which you feel the most tenderness and compassion towards Nathan. As if only by hurting him do you make him relevant.

He loves you. He has not stopped loving you since you first got together. In the last few weeks he's been trying gently to manage you, trying to corral your grief, and provide support.

He speaks quietly, as if not to spook you. He calls you regularly throughout the day, brings home flowers, cleans the house, cooks. He has not pushed you on any of the issues that must seem alarming to him as an informed observer. The meat eating. The bitchery. The hours spent at the gallery in the evening when you should be home. The times you've gone running so hard on the heath you've made yourself vomit. He's worried, of course he is, about your health, your state of mind, the way your brother's accident has stripped you of your usual spirit. He's worried about the disappearance of the woman he knows. He doesn't say, Darling, why don't you see someone about being depressed, or, Really, you should finish the work for the Trust, or, Susan, please come back to me. Nor does he cry in front of you, though you know he loved your brother too, and misses the times they stayed up late drinking whisky and playing cards, or watching Bond reruns, the times they biked the trails, or walked either side of you up the fells. He has not unpacked his grief.

You exist just outside the life you have with Nathan. It isn't your life any more. Within is the choreography of eating and sleeping and paying bills, the mechanics of being together in a relationship, which has nothing to do with who you are. The man you live with is a kind stranger.


If Danny were told about all this, if by some miraculous paradox Danny could be drawn from the dark ether into which he has been vented and rearranged around his old anatomy and then told about your response to his death, he would get it. He would smile in that broad, puerile way of his, or laugh, or put his arm around you and say, Lighthouse extinguished, Captain. The rocks! The rocks! or something equally endearing and childish. The awful irony is that he'd be the one person to truly sympathise. By which you don't mean just accept poor old you, having it hard, missing him and messing up your life. No. Danny would have an exact perspective, a clear understanding of how it is to be you. If Danny were alive, he wouldn't need to be told what was wrong. He would simply know. Your little brother was cleverer than anyone gave him credit for. He didn't exhibit those unhealthy verbal symptoms or throw fits about swapping milk beakers. He didn't have to see Dr Dixon for any sessions. He was the quiet one, the dummy, 'the secondary'; in a way, he held all the power.

It's hard to explain this connection. Kids at school would ask you to read each other's minds. What's Danny thinking, Suze? What colour are your sister's knickers, Dando? Woooh, can you levitate this pencil case between you? Can you feel her bits? As if the two of you were holding private seances.


Maybe it's best described like this. You have always liked fire. In the cottage where you were brought up you were the one who kept watch over the hearth, clearing the grate in the morning, stoking the coals before dinner, and smooring the embers at night. You hated anyone else poking it, which your dad often did, as dads often do. He would tell you off as a kid for building the fire too high, being wasteful with the wood and coal, which he had to shovel, chop and stack. You'll start a chimney blaze and kipper me paintings, Suze! You weren't a pyromaniac; it wasn't about the thrill of conjuring up that thin, vigorous spirit and unleashing its ravenous appetite. It was the history you'd had with it.

You were never afraid, not since the moment you crawled over to the pretty sparking hearth when the guard was down, put one chubby fist in towards the flames and removed a burning stick by its un-charred end. You were still holding it a minute later when your mum arrived and dropped her washing basket. Oh poppet, poppet, be careful, she said, walking with soft haste towards you. As your head turned towards her the torch drooped and touched your leg. Then you understood what that red synaptic bloom was. It was pain, seen. It was how pain looked outside the body. There's still a scar, silky and white, like a spider's nest, above your kneecap.

It was your brother who cried the loudest and made the most fuss though. He squalled and wrung out his eyes in the next room, blind to the events but no less invested in the trauma. Bur bur bur, he yelled. Suzeeeee. He screamed and bawled and rubbed the wound until your mum went to him, lifted him up, and doused his knee with cold water. That was the first time there was clear evidence.

Afterwards, Danny was nervous. Any time a spark cracked in the fire and missiled out on to the rug, or later when a hot rock fell from a joint into his lap, he would stamp and flap and batter until the tiny smut went out. In contrast, you picked shooters up between your thumb and forefinger and flicked them back over the grate. At teenage parties you would pass your hand through a candle flame at the exact possible slowness for it not to burn you, while Danny panicked and clattered the wax stem to the floor. He was anxious, but giddy around fire. He loved it when you lit the whin bushes on the moor, or made bonfires, or held a lighter to the straw scarecrow belonging to the farm next door. He liked watching you lay fires in the cottage, aiding the draw with a sheet of newspaper, the orange eye brightening behind the events of the world. When the newsprint turned brown and flamed to life, you punched the paper up the chimney, and Danny blinked and blinked, and left the room, and then came back in.


Now he is gone, and you are here, trying to find yourself in the mess, trying to locate the intimate filaments of which you are comprised. So that from this chaos order is achieved. So that you might be restored. To summarise: you are, or were, a twin. You like fire, veal, the seagull-shaped mouth of the man you are fucking when it dips below your navel and preens in the emulsion of you. You don't find comfort in books. Your name is known in the art world, because you are relatively talented, and because you are your father's daughter. You have your mother's teeth, her black and topaz moles. You were the embryo on the left side of her uterus, the embryo fate was kind to. Your brother rode his mountain bike the wrong way up the motorway one night and was killed. You are alive, somehow, continuing to pulse, continuing to breathe.

From How To Paint A Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Copyright 2009 by Sarah Hall. Published by Harper Perennial. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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