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

Dead nature is the literal translation for the term Nature morte. It does not, however, refer to some ecological disaster, but to a genre in painting: the still life.

In Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man, a novel very much concerned with painting, an artist states that only through still life can one establish the true essence of what painting is all about. Only then will we be able to understand living art.

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider the novel as a kind of still life, where inanimate words on paper are the equivalent to paint on canvas.

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Through fiction, and its ability to portray in minute and sensuous detail the fabric of our lives, we can understand our own mysteries. In this particular instance, the mysteries of love and loss are Hall's subjects.

The structure of her novel is unusual. There are four characters, four stories, four time periods, which while linked thematically, touch one another only in oblique ways.

Each of the four stories, and here is where Hall's mastery of her craft is most evident, is also told in a different narrative voice and point of view.

The storyline is not sequential either, but takes the characters back and forth through different times and places.

The technique is one we are more familiar with in cinema, but it works equally well here, and allows Hall to touch down in her character's lives without having to follow them through the usual novelistic conventions of narrative development.

Hall masterfully describes the grieving Suzie's erotic encounters as a desperate attempt to reconnect with the world

Each of the four characters is an artist. Giorgio, a dying painter in Italy, who seems to be modelled on the real painter Giorgio Morandi, has retreated from the world and for many years painted only the natura morta, the collection of bottles in his studio.

Annette, a young flower seller, who was briefly in an art class taught by Giorgio, gradually loses her sight and begins to inhabit a world both more intense and more dangerous than the one she no longer sees.

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Peter, a painter in Cumbria, who lives with outrageous gusto and carelessness, and who writes unanswered letters to Giorgio, whom he has never met, is brought face to face with harsh reality when he finds his life threatened by the very landscape he loves to paint.

And finally, there is Suzie, the voice that dominates the book. A talented photographer, and daughter of Peter, she has forsaken her art after the death of her twin brother and is drifting perilously through an all-consuming grief that threatens to engulf her completely.

Each of the four character's chapters has a different heading. Giorgio's musings are titled Translated from the Bottle Journals. The inner world of the young flower seller gets the heading The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni. The sections on Peter, the larger-than-life artist, are titled The Fool on the Hill. The shattered world of Suzie is called The Mirror Crisis.

As the novel progresses, we begin to understand how apposite those titles are and how much the book resembles a transparent glass cube in which the parts reflect and merge with each other.

While there is a plot in the book, one that compels us to keep turning the pages, the novel is more of a meditation on the effects and consequences of loss. Each character loses something precious, whether it is the ability to see, or the death of a family member, or even his or her own life. Hall suggests that art, its appreciation as well as its creation, is a kind of compensation, and is a path through beauty to a more profound understanding of life. Sometimes she seems to be echoing Keats's counsel that the only truth is in beauty.

Like a painter, Hall is interested in nuances, subtleties and the spaces in between things, and, like an artist, she often sees with blinding intensity into the meaning of things.

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It comes as something of a surprise in a novel so overly concerned with perception, with looking, with creating, that Suzie's method of entrance back into life from her grieving state is not to resume her art, but to undertake an adulterous affair with a co-worker.

As most authors know, writing about the erotic is devilishly difficult (there is even a yearly prize for the most egregious examples), and as most readers know, encountering erotic descriptions in literature is more often than not merely embarrassing. Hall, however, masterfully describes the grieving Suzie's erotic encounters as a desperate attempt to reconnect with the world. Only through that most intense of the physical, emotional and sensory experiences we can know is she able to move out of her crippling inner despair.

The somewhat elegiac and melancholy mood of the preceding chapters changes with Suzie's redemption, and the author seems to be implying that it is not art that will save you, but the body, with all the ecstatic immediacy of its desires.

The title of the book, by the way, is not a fanciful invention by the author, but refers to a passage in Cennino Cennini's The Craftsman's Handbook, where instructions are given in detail on how to paint a corpse (it was written in the 15th century, when the practice obviously had some currency), not so that it appears alive, but rather that it looks properly dead. Contrary to that advice, Sarah Hall has in this book turned a still life into a marvellous and original Nature vivante.

When not making words, Lewis DeSoto has been known to paint the occasional still life.

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