Wednesday, September 30, 2009

REVIEW: How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

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.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.


ImageNations said...

Seriously, I don't know what i read for. Character or Plot? However, I know I don't like some books. I have to check where my interest lies. Thanks for alerting me on this.

Let me use this opportunity to ask you to vote for your favourite book of the quarter. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I know the feeling...I read The Electric Michelangelo, also, and found it dull.

I think I will pass on this latest.

Good review!

bermudaonion said...

I like a good plot too, so I don't think this is for me.

the heart is a lonely reader said...

Argh, should have read your review. Bought the book just last night. Well, I suppose the readers around me will now have someone to borrow from.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I absolutely loved this book, despite the fact that it had no real plot. I can't really pinpoint why I loved it, but, I found all the characters well-developed and interesting. I actually *cared* about them, if you know what I mean?

It's the first book by Sarah Hall that I've read, and it's certainly tempted me to read more of her works. However, it doesn't surprise me that it didn't make the shortlist... what I can't understand is, how did The Little Stranger make it?

Zibilee said...

How funny! I have recently discovered that I love character driven books, sometimes more so than ones with strong plots. I am thinking about taking a closer look at this book because it seems just like the kind of book I have been looking for, and you say that she writes very well. Thanks for the heads up on this book, this is the first review I have seen, and it seems like just my cup of tea. Very insightful review.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Thanks for your honest review. I have Electric M, but have not read it. This one never made it to my list, and probably won't either.

S. Krishna said...

I heard about this one from Amy (My Friend Amy). I think I'll still give it a try, but thanks for the warning!

JoAnn said...

I love character development...but if it occurs within a well-plotted novel, then I'm even happier. Will be curious to see whether this one appeals to me. Thanks for the honest review.