Back in the archives of my Booker reading history rests an encounter with Sarah Hall's short-listed second novel The Electric Michelangelo. I was a huge fan of that book despite what happened to the elephant and, as I recall, spent a lot of time defending it amongst reading friends who hadn't enjoyed it at all.
2004, so pre-dating dovegreyreader by a couple of years, but there are the cuttings inside the book to remind me of that year of the big Booker controversy.
Except I think there's a big Booker controversy every year, it's good for business as they say, and 2004 was the year the judges damned some entries as 'rubbish and drivel'. From The Independent of September that year and Boyd Tonkin writing of the short list,
'These judges have reined in fiction's high gloss, high concept one-trick ponies. The books on their list look not so much trad or retro as reassuringly expansive in language and form...the Booker prize will no longer try to transform itself into the Turner prize.'
It was also the year that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas seemed like the most sure-footed front runner for years, no need for a ceremony really, except the prize went to The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. As usual I had backed the wrong horse seriously hoping that outsider Sarah Hall just might squeak it by a nostril.
No chance my 100% Booker failure record lived on.
This year's inevitable bBc hasn't materialised, or if it was intended with the inclusion of Me Cheeta then perhaps it's backfired because plenty of people including me are looking forward to reading it.
No such 'rubbish and drivel' can be directed towards How To Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall's latest book, published by Faber and I'm now going to catch up with Haweswater and The Carhullan Army because this is more of that special writing which works for me.
Another book that kept stopping me in my reading tracks. I had to press rewind, go back a few paragraphs and read again just to be sure that I had really read those words in that order and allowed time for the effect to sink in.
Sarah Hall's writing certainly has to the power to arrest progress as you sit and admire the terrain and I think I've effectively read the book twice.
Peter Caldicutt once a hippy drop-out artist now the nation's favourite and his wife Lydia and their twenty-something twins Susie and Danny live in a happy relaxed bubble of slightly anarchic family life in the gritty terrain of up North. Susie has found her feet as a successful London photographer, Danny has dropped out and settled for the laissez-faire lifestyle so accurately role-modeled by his father.
Meanwhile, separate but connecting plot strands are being woven over in Italy around the lives of world-renowned artist Giorgio now terminally ill and a local girl Annette whom he has taught in school in the months preceding her encroaching blindness.
Add in the shadowy camouflaged mother, the overtly protective mother, an agitated housekeeper, a friend in a permanent vegetative state, a lover or two and...
Phew, are you keeping up?
I think you can see that Sarah Hall has given herself enough material to work on there and it's a surprise this book wasn't another 100 pages or more to cope with it all, but given the discipline of 286 I was perfectly satisfied when I turned the final page.
Then having turned that final page no author interview or book group questions, but an extract from the 14th century Italian painter Cennini's The Craftsman's Handbook entitled How to Paint a Dead Man, which suddenly and very unexpectedly added whole new layers of understanding and interpretation to what I'd just read.
There is much exploration of the twin factor and, psychic tendencies and secret languages and special bonds not withstanding, when Danny is tragically 'lost' and Susie inexplicably senses nothing, her grief reaction is profound, her mourning reckless and palpably sad.
These are lives of detachment, ambiguity, rebellion and individuality all woven together by those common themes of grief and loss, ageing, plenty of seeing and not seeing - darkness visible, hearing but not listening and Sarah Hall uses some interesting narrative voices to help her cause.
'Nowadays, people often don't say I, as if they don't want to be involved in the desperate act of being. No one is contented dwelling inside their existence any more. No one is secure. Identity can be chosen. You can be whoever you want to be, which means you should consider all the options before selecting yourself.'
This is how Susie tells her whole story, in this unusual second person voice
'You want to be helped. You want to experience your life. You want to
feel yourself again; the owner not just of muscles, connective tissues,
nerve endings and senses, but of a soul, and a familiar personality.'
and I won't reveal any more because for me it felt like an integral element of the book's skill in telling me much that was left unsaid, but it did lead me to explore the whole technique because suddenly I could think of few books that use this.
I heard Sarah Hall speaking about this book at Dartington a few weeks ago, when she apologised for bringing the Cumbrian rain to Devon and we laughed...we're not laughing now, Cumbria would you like it back?
Sarah explained that she is an intuitive writer rather than a planner of novels and perhaps that's what gives her writing an edge, that sense of something different, a book that could take you absolutely anywhere and in many different directions, and for each reader those routes to the final page might be various. So much to consider, so much of covert significance, so much to ponder about art and vision, landscape, still life...it's all endlessly thought-provoking.
Every human state exists within How to Paint a Dead Man and it resonates on for me still.
When Giorgio says at a defining moment
'if everything feels lost trust the heart'
I realised that sometimes one line can knit a whole book together very neatly.