On How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

#44 of 2011 • How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall.

I am not as (for lack of a better word) moved as I imagined I would be. Overall, meh—a book I read because, as is always the case, I thought I’d like it, only to find out that my head had conjured a grander thing in the wait. Something missing in this one, lacking a certain gravitas—reading it, it felt like the images the author wished to create were stuck in a haze, that icky dream-like quality of narratives that refuse to commit.

Four disparate characters—a dying painter, a landscape artist, a photographer [and her dead twin brother], a blind girl selling flowers in Italy—with four narratives only occasionally glimpsing. Very occasionally. Their narratives span and skip chronology, continents—I felt that Hall stumbled in the segues, or of closing the individual arcs.

No, not making too much comment on the clumsy ambivalence of the author regarding these four stories and their interrelationships. Besides, wouldn’t it be lazy for me to say, about a book of four narrative threads, that the author could have done better with just one of them, allowed it to run full and vivid? That even the language that shines in one section could be used to focus on just one general preoccupation? Like our dying artist, my god, he’s adorable. Or, well, like Suze, the grieving photographer/curator.

Wait. Even there I had problems. See, Hall writes a really gripping adultery. Understated yet volatile, as all literary adulteries ought to be. The malaise of a relationship of years and counting—dissatisfaction, I can ride with that. However, it’s placed in a larger context of a breakdown, as a result of her twin brother dying. A death and a grieving, that was completely unnecessary. No need for the stimulus of her twin brother’s death—and the exploration of how unnervingly close they were in infancy, my god.

Can’t a woman want another man on peace, without having the scapegoat of tragedy, of loss? See how Hall writes about just the relationship with her longtime boyfriend Nathan, its casual deterioration—the boredom of the every day:

The two of you are different now, calmer. There is still sex, occasionally, but it is no longer a priority to seduce or be seduced by him. You recognize him more as a housemate, a person who becomes gently furious at the news every night, a decent cook. All the powers you have for capriciousness, all the potency you wield — and you do wield it, with dark sedge eyes, good legs, the ability to turn male heads on entering a room, and talent — seem superfluous to the dynamic of the relationship now. You still bring him tea every morning, and comfort his headaches with paracetamol. You are generous with birthday presents. But there’s no entitlement to your body any more, granted through arduous solicitation. An obvious hard-on when you undress. Now you wear your best lingerie to work, the silk dampening, the lace cuffs stiff under your dress. Your mind tracks to someone else when you touch yourself, and you think of that time in the churchyard, his mouth nuzzling against your soaked underwear, the desperate thrusts. At night sometimes the ache becomes unbearable. You leave the room where Nathan is sitting reading or watching television. You OK, Suze? he calls. To leave a room abruptly might still mean a sharp descent into sorrow. You say you’re fine, just going to the bathroom. You lock the door; lean forward against the cold mirror. You feel down inside your bra, unfasten however many buttons on you jeans you need to.

Well, then, isn’t that just dandy? Hall could have managed quite well there, methinks. Authors: commit, for the love of orphaned baby pandas, commit to your characters, their stories. Please, and thank you.

3 thoughts on “On How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall


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