Friday, 14 August 2009

How to Paint a Dead Man

The links between Literature and Landscape have always fascinated me. Living in such a beautiful part of the world, known internationally for it's authors - Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Hugh Walpole, Norman Nicholson, to name only a few - I'm always interested to see how my compatriots transmute their backdrop into words on a printed page. Melvyn Bragg mines his Cumbrian heritage regularly and almost obsessively, Margaret Forster subtly and more in memoir than fiction. The two youngest writers - poet Jacob Polley and novelist Sarah Hall are both happy to admit that their writing has grown naturally out of the landscape they were brought up in.

I'm currently reading Sarah Hall's latest novel. It's difficult for one writer to criticise another - we know, better than anyone else, just how difficult it is to DO. But I have to be honest about how her work makes me feel. She is - I think - one of the uk's most gifted young novelists and I'm always curious to read her next book. She has very original ideas, brilliant titles and she's an expert at plot construction. But so far her work has failed to move me in some fundamental way. When I read Haweswater I often wondered whether she was trying too hard to be 'literary'? There is a great deal of detail in her books - so much that I often wish she wrote more sparingly - but I've also been aware of a detachment, a distance, a lack of passion, or perhaps just the failure to communicate that passion to me (or my failure to detect it?).

How to Paint a Dead Man is much, much better than its predecessors. The temptation to overwrite is still there - I wanted more space for the reader - but there is real passion in her portrayal of the bereaved Susan and more profound insights into the complexities that arise from being human; how bad we are at the relationships we need - how we elevate reason over instinct, and value the activities of the brain over those of the flesh.

Sarah Hall uses her plotting skills to interweave four stories with only the most tenuous of links. A dying painter in Italy, a blind flower girl, Susan's father Peter - who paints the wild northern landscape he lives in - and Susan, a brilliant young photographer who has just lost her twin brother and her own sense of identity. I was attracted by the fact that the book's settings reflect aspects of my own life - the time divided between Cumbria and Italy - and, since I live with a visual artist, the daily argument between creativity and bodily realities. This book goes deeper and takes more risks than her previous books and I suspect that it will be a turning point in her career. It has kept me reading, despite having a head full of the swine flu virus. That has to be a good recommendation and I wish her luck in the Man Booker lottery. More please!

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