Sunday 15 March 2015

How To Paint a Dead Man

Finished March 15
How To Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

This novel has four interlinked characters who tell their stories in alternating chapters. Each story is told at a different point in time and all have some relation to the world of art.
In the chapters titled "The Mirror Crisis" Susan Caldicutt is mourning the accidental death of her twin brother. She has always felt connected to him and now she feels that part of herself is missing. In response, she has both retreated from those who care about her, and acted out in a way that will be devastating to those who care about her if they discover it. Susan works as an art curator at a small gallery in London, and is also an art photographer making a name for herself. Susan's story is the one that occurs in the most recent time period of the four.
The chapters titled "Translations from the Bottle Journals" tell the story of Giorgio, an Italian painter in the last months of his long life. Giorgio is most famous for his numerous paintings of groups of bottles, but they aren't his only painting subjects. Recently has been getting letters from a young British painter, Peter, who admires him. The letters tell of Peter's experiences as well, but do not include a return address, so Giorgio thinks about how he would respond to Peter. Giorgio has also been teaching art at the local school at the request of a teacher there. He has enjoyed his sessions with the students, and finds he makes connections with the students, particularly with one young girl with vision issues. Giorgio's story is the earliest story, taking place about 1965.
In chapters titled "The Fool on the Hill", a British middle-aged landscape painter, Peter Caldicutt, enjoys his rather bohemian rural life with his wife and two children. His children are now young adults, He is Susan's father, and the older version of the young artist who wrote to Giorgio. For years, Peter and his wife Lydia lived in poverty, struggling for a living, with Lydia working multiple jobs. Once Peter gained recognition, their lives became less precarious, but they still live in the rural village near the hills that inspire much of Peter's art. It is on one of these treks for inspiration that Peter becomes trapped and allows his mind to look back on his life, telling his story.
The chapters titled "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni" give us the story of the young woman Annette. Annette lives in a small Italian town, and is blind. Her family owns greenhouses where they raise flowers, and after her loss of sight became complete, she began to work in the local market, selling flowers from a small stand. She misses her school days, particularly the art classes from an aging local painter, Signor Giorgio. He thought she had talent, and encouraged her. Annette's mother is caught in depression, mourning Annette's father and performing odd pious acts. She has two brothers who still live at home, Maurizio who works in the greenhouses, and Tommaso who is still in school and thinking of winning bike races for Italy. Annette's goes regularly to the local cemetery to place flowers on her father's grave and also on the tomb of Signor Giorgio. She knows her flowers well, and has both a wisdom of the ages and an innocence of the world to her.
The book title is inspired by a guide written by an Italian artist Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, which is included at the end of the novel.
Characters are important here, but so also are the experiences of the senses. The reader is awakened to the experiences of each character's world in beautiful language.


  1. Great cover and title. I love books having to do with art and artists. Do the four threads ever come together in this book, or are they always separate stories? And did you like it?

  2. No, they don't ever come together, but there are definitely interesting connections between them, and the themes relate to each other.
    I liked it a lot, and found the writing beautiful.