The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall. Published 2005 by Harper Perennial. Literary Fiction.
I picked up The Electric Michelangelo in a used bookstore sometime last summer; it seemed almost custom-made to lure me in. It's a story about an unusual man- Cyril (or Cy) Parks is a tattoo artist who finds his trade growing up in a seaside resort town in England, and then perfects it in the wilds of Coney Island, New York, in the era between the first two World Wars. It's populated by a variety of eccentric and colorful characters, along with their secrets and stories, especially the ones they wear on their skin.
I feel sort of badly that I didn't like the book more than I did, because it seemed like the kind of book I would normally enjoy. The writing is very skillful and it has about it a very literary patina. The problem for me is that it seems to lack focus. The book is just too long. It's divided into two sections of roughly equal length- Cy's life in England and his life in New York. There may be some artistic reason why the first half is as long as it is, but I think author Hall could have done without it entirely. The love story supposedly at its center takes up just a small portion near the end, and the whole Coney Island section feels compressed, like she's covering too much ground too quickly. She writes page after page after page of narration, eschewing dialog in favor of endless description and exposition. I would have liked to get to know some of these colorful characters better- as it is I felt alienated even from the protagonist Cy. The rest, like the conjoined twins who ran the local bar, to the couple who were Cy's first friends in New York, are little more than collections of adjectives. His lady friend Grace is supposed to be enigmatic but instead she's almost a cypher.
I will say though that Hall's writing, as verbose as it can be sometimes, is beautifully stylized and fluid. She captures the transience of the summer season beautifully in the first section, the resort-town atmosphere of escapism and frivolity, and shows a loving respect for the vacationing laborers and invalids who populate the seaside town of Morecambe, not to mention the people who run it- people like Cy's mother Reeda and his mentor Eliot Riley, who make the town tick but who have secrets of their own. And she certainly seems to have done her homework on the history and practice of the tattoo trade. The sections dealing with Cy's apprenticeship, and his relationship to his customers and his feelings about the deeper meaning of tattooing were fascinating and kept me going. The way the book ends is very satisfying, and I liked finally getting to hear Cy actually talk and interact with another character more than a line or two at a time. I wish I'd been able to spend more time like that with him. I think anyone interested in tattooing or Coney Island would probably enjoy The Electric Michelangelo; I was a little disappointed but still found some things to appreciate.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.