By Dara Horn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
HOW TO PAINT A DEAD MAN
By Sarah Hall
Harper Perennial. 287 pp. Paperback, $14.99
In this gorgeous still life of a book, Sarah Hall gives us four lives -- two in 1960s Italy and two in contemporary Britain -- each narrated in a different voice. All are artists confronting mortal peril: Susan is a young British photographer mourning her twin brother, Giorgio is an Italian still-life painter facing terminal illness, Peter is a British landscape artist who becomes physically trapped under a boulder he is painting, and Annette is a blind Italian flower girl who once loved to draw and whose beauty makes her a target for assault.
Their stories appear unrelated until the connections between them slowly unfold. Susan is Peter's daughter, Peter corresponded with Giorgio, Giorgio was Annette's art teacher, and Annette's connection to Susan becomes clear at the book's end. These links become especially evocative as the reader recognizes many connections the characters cannot see. Peter's disastrous hippie past resonates with the causes of Susan's brother's death. Annette's descent into blindness is a thematic echo of Giorgio's youthful sin, when he failed to see how his acceptance of fascist sponsorship enabled the murderers of his Jewish wife. Susan's grief evokes the book's title, drawn from a classic artist's manual used by both Peter and Giorgio.
The effect is to make us wonder about the many moments of insight we miss in our own lives. After hearing from a friend, Giorgio says, "I am not lonely, but receiving such a letter reminds me of the other souls in this world whom I might have liked to meet." The book's great triumph is that we finish it feeling the same way.
The downside of the novel's delicate architecture is that it lacks narrative drive. Even when Peter is trapped on a mountainside miles from help, the situation is played for profundity rather than suspense. But Hall has a poet's gift, and this novel is best enjoyed as a prose poem whose blindingly beautiful insights gradually accrue. Her portraits of these artists are captured moments, with each life slowed to a stop by loss and pain. She has made visible to us what we would otherwise be too blind to see in our mortal lives: the ever-present shadow of eternity.
Dara Horn's latest novel, "All Other Nights," is about Jewish spies during the Civil War.