In How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall paints four portraits with words. All four share a similar style and clearly come from the same hand, but each could stand on its own. The chapters alternate between the four subjects to another, each clearly delineated from the other, like panels in a quadriptych. And as your eye moves from one “panel” to the other, what you saw in one panel informs how you see the next. The subjects are distinct, but related. The characters are tangentially related to one another—there’s a father and a daughter, a teacher and a pupil—but their more significant relationship is that they’re all artists, and they’re all facing death.
Susan is a photographer and curator dealing with the death of her twin brother, her other self. Her story is told in the second person, perhaps because she’s reverted to her childhood confusion over pronouns, back in the day when she couldn’t see herself as an I or me. Both she and her brother Danny were you.
In the 1960s, the elderly Italian artist Giorgio, known for his paintings of bottles, keeps a journal during his last days as he works on his final painting. He thinks about his lost family, as well as the letters he received from those who’ve admired his art.
One of those admirers, Peter, is a landscape artist and Susan’s father. His wild youth has given way to years as a family man, tromping around the hillsides of Cumbria. Years after Giorgio’s death and years before Danny’s, he has his own brush with death, and that near miss gives him occasion to look back.
In her earliest youth, Annette was a naturally gifted painter. Her teacher, Giorgio, said she was a true impressionist. But even as a young girl, she the death of her eyesight was coming. Now that it has come, she spends her days in a carefully arranged life in her small Italian town, selling flowers in the market and tending the graves of her father and of Giorgio, all the while worrying that the Bestia, the monster her mother warned her about, will come and take her.
Rather than tell stories of these characters, Hall paints portraits. There’s not a lot of plot—until the end of the book what plot there is comes in the characters’ memories as they look back at their lives, considering where they have been and where they may be going. Each one does experience a cataclysmic event during the novel, but even those events are presented quietly, matter-of-factly, just one part of the portrait.
This lack of story made How to Paint a Dead Man a hard book for me to love. When I put it down, I felt no urgency to get back to it. It’s not a book that called out to me, that pricked at my mind when I was at work or doing laundry. I put it aside and out of my mind. Yet every time I did pick it up, I was spellbound by the language. Sarah Hall is remarkably skilled with words. Here, for example, is her description of the flower market, as experienced by Annette:
Soon it is warm and the mist evaporates. A breeze comes intermittently through the market entrances, bringing with it the memory of wild herbs, lake rushes and cattle. At the cafe opposite chairs are scraped out from under tables and tablecloths snapped. Saucers chink as they are set down. At some stalls the haggling has already begun. The hotel kitchen boys are scouting for sweet onions to caramelise, good meat, and imported octopus to scare, once, twice, in the boiling pots, before it is submerged. Glass lids tinkle as they are raised to investigate spice; paper cracks like lightning hitting the surface of water as it is folded around ham and smoked fish. Voices crest and roll down the alleyways, there is rustling and gossiping. She can hear the tottering clogs of old women as they pass by and the narrow rasping heels of young wives. Someone is crunching a fruit rind. The summer theatre is open for business.
If Annette did not know what people looked like, if she had never seen them before, she would think they were fantastical compositions—part-insect, part-crockery, with wings made of gossamer or tin, with whiskers, hooves, and clicking lobster tails—so unlike tidy, soft-skinned creations do they sound.
How successful this book is with any individual reader will probably depend on how well that reader’s interest is sustained by the mere power of language like this. That’s not to say that the story and characters are meaningless, but they aren’t where the power of this book lies. For me, it was enough, but only just enough. There were a few moments when I wanted more movement. I didn’t feel this way about the stories in Hall’s recent collection, The Beautiful Indifference. Hall’s prose was just as rich, but the stories came and went without giving me time to get antsy. There was always something new to look at. It was a whole exhibition, not just a quadriptych.