Sarah Hall is an ambitious writer. Evidence of this abounds in her first book, Daughters of the North–a post apocalyptic novel. In How to Paint a Dead Man, Hall’s ambition is still very much alive, yet less effective.
How to Paint a Dead Man weaves together four different stories: a photographer coping with the loss of her twin brother, a quirky landscape artist in a dangerous situation, a dying man who paints bottles in seclusion, and a blind girl. Each story introduces different philosophical questions about art (i.e., what is it? Does it mean anything? What makes an artist?) all of them compelling and never entirely answered.
Susan speaks in second person, which I’ve always found to be an engaging, albeit presumptuous, POV. When she and her twin brother were children, she couldn’t distinguish herself from him. She has a hard time figuring out who “I” is. And after his death, by using “you” she distances herself from her bereavement; the second person also intimately connects her to the reader. She neglects her photography and strikes up an affair. In her urgent need to be outside of herself, she creates and destroys indiscriminately.
The landscape artist, Peter, falls between two boulders while trying to paint on a mountainside. While stuck, he reflects on his previous disastrous marriage and his life as an artist. Peter is an extremely odd character; the way Hall handles Peter’s scattered personality and darkly shrouded past seems like commentary on modern day artists.
Giorgio is an old man and a very famous painter of bottles. He lives hermit-like on a hilltop and has infrequent visitors. His guilt about his Jewish wife’s death causes him to become absorbed in his work. Giorgio’s inner monologue is a meditation on art and seems some what archaic and overly philosophical. His story lacks any narrative drive.
Annette, the blind girl, is born into a very conservative Italian family. She and her brothers sell flowers in the market and she paints occasionally. We learn how she became blind and what it’s like to “see” from her POV. Annette converts sounds and smells into images. She is extremely intuitive, yet kept purposefully naive by her mother. Annette’s chapters are where Hall does her most creative work.
The major problem with this book is that there is no plot driven story. Though the characters are interesting, I wasn’t invested in them (except Susan). The book itself is like a work of art that you would appreciate in a museum, but wouldn’t hang in your home.