How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall. Published 2009 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.
How to Paint a Dead Man, the latest novel by esteemed (and Booker-nominated) British author Sarah Hall, is probably the last of her books I will read. It's a novel told through four alternating points of view- different people in different places at different times, connected by thin threads. In one narrative, artist Susan deals with the death of her twin brother Danny; in another, her father Peter, an established painter, goes about his daily life until he takes a bad fall in the woods; in another, an elderly painter waits to die; in the last, a blind Italian girl (and former blossoming artist) named Annette tries to manage under the yoke of her overprotective mother.
There isn't really a plot to speak of; Hall's writing is heavy on exposition and character-building and light on action, and the book came across to me more as four extended character sketches. One thing that I've learned about myself in the last couple of years is that I really like a good plot to keep me turning those pages. While I admire Hall's skill with language and the vivid people she creates on the page, the only thing that really kept me going was a tiny bit of suspense she creates around Peter's predicament- out of a walk, he falls and hurts himself, and out of this little bit of quotidian life she spins out just enough action to keep me interested.
On balance though, it just wasn't my cup of tea. I've read her before- a couple of years ago I read her Booker-nominated novel The Electric Michelangelo, a much longer and more detailed character sketch of a single person, a tattoo artist who moves from England to Coney Island, which I found likewise dull- and hoped that this new book might be different, because I think she's an excellent writer and I would love to see her inject a little more action into her otherwise very accomplished prose. Readers who read for character might really enjoy How to Paint a Dead Man but those who read for plot might want to look for something else.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.