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Bold Novel Of Art, Ideas And One 'Dead Man'

'How To Paint A Dead Man'

"You aren't feeling like yourself."

It's bold to open a book with the word "you," even bolder to keep a quarter of it in the second person. But this is what British novelist Sarah Hall does — writes fearless books, paints enormous canvases and wrestles with large issues like identity, art, violence and death. The fact that she does it with such control lets the reader know the journey is going to be worth the emotional commitment.

How to Paint a Dead Man weaves together the time-shifted stories of four visual artists, all at crisis points in their lives and not quite feeling like themselves. Giorgio, a painter in Umbria, is struggling to finish one last painting before his emphysema overtakes him. In passages set a few years later, his student Annette has gone blind and is living a life completely controlled by her fearful, strictly religious mother. Peter, a former correspondent of Giorgio's and now a renowned Cumbrian painter with a monstrous ego, spends a lonely night trapped in a ravine after an accident, some 30 years after Giorgio's death. After Peter's wounds have healed, his son Danny dies, and Danny's twin, Susan, the "you" of Chapter 1, is unmoored by her grief and unsure of who she is without the reflection of her brother.

If it all sounds a little confusing in synopsis, it's perfectly clear in the novel itself. Hall is skillful enough to make the leaps in time and space flow easily, and there are unobtrusive, hidden clues linking one chapter to another. A bottle, the subject of one of Giorgio's paintings, finds its way into the hands of each of the four artists. There are other tricks — Giorgio's chapters are meant to be translated sections from his journals, and somehow the text reads as if it had been translated from Italian into English.

To her credit, Hall is not a writer in love with her own brilliance. How to Paint a Dead Man may be clever in its structure and style, but it is deeply concerned with its protagonists and their traumas. As with any book this heavily populated, there will be some characters the reader connects to more strongly than others. I was perhaps most taken with Susan, who is acting out her pain in an affair with a married man. But all four characters and the questions their stories raise — What is the purpose of art? How is it different for the viewer and for the artist? How does one crawl through pain to create again? — will stay with me for some time to come.

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Jessa Crispin