This is an archived issue of Belletrista. If you are looking for the current issue, you can find it here
Belletrista - A site promoting translated women authored literature from around the world


by Sarah Hall
Reviewed by Kathleen Ambrogi

Imagine yourself leaping into a painting. Something Impressionistic, perhaps: rich with color so thick you skid through its juicy impasto and fall into its shimmering pointillist pools. That's more or less the way I felt reading Sarah Hall's new novel, How to Paint a Dead Man.

Although there is one complete novel here, it is in fact made up of four entwined stories. Each has its own protagonist, its own voice, its own urgent conflict:

The Mirror Crisis: Susan is so attached to her twin Danny that she can address herself only in the second person. An art curator, a photographer, and a successful London urbanite, Susan lost her brother once as a child and now she has lost him again -- and herself in the process. Only sexual misadventure seems capable of bringing her back to life.

Translated from the Bottle Journals: Italian artist Giorgio (inspired by real-life artist Giorgio Morandi) paints still lifes of bottles to great acclaim. As he approaches the end of his life, he muses on art and mentors, but his heart snags on memories of his lost love and the war that took her.

The Fool on the Hill: After a wild romp through life, Peter has arrived at comfortable middle age in the English countryside, painting the landscapes he has always loved, his wife and children at his side. But one day a sketching trip goes awry and he remembers just how precious life is.

The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni: Annette has known since she was a child that she would eventually go blind. As she approaches young womanhood in an Italian village, she holds tight to memories of the flowers she once painted and the teacher who guided her. Meanwhile, terror of the satanic Bestia — a painting behind a painting on the church's altarpiece — haunts her darkening days.

As you read these interwoven tales, you'll discover that each protagonist's struggle is influenced by the others, often far away in another time or place. The connections gradually reveal themselves, one detail at a time, like a picture taking shape on a canvas. A series of "aha" moments adds the pleasure of parsing a mystery to a book that is essentially a collection of psychological portraits.

It's easy to see why Sarah Hall (former Booker Prize finalist) has garnered the critics' praise. This book of only 288 pages stretches from pre-WWII to the present and investigates such heady topics as the universality of art and the invisibility of truth. At the same time, it is peopled by characters so vivid they'll take your hand and pull you through the pages. But I wager you'll pull back from time to time, wanting to slow down and savor the words and images, the ideas and insights. Literary writing doesn't get much better than this.