Friday, 14 October 2011

The skull beneath the skin

Giorgio, a dying, isolated Italian artist; a woman, Suze, grieving the loss of her twin brother, Danny; a teenaged girl, Annette, gradually losing her sight; an English artist called Peter trapped in the Cumbrian landscape he has spent a lifetime painting. Sarah Hall's fourth novel could almost be read as four thematically-linked stories, split into segments, rather than as a single entity, and perhaps is better approached that way. Although the publisher's blurb tries to emphasise the concrete links between the narratives - Suze is the daughter of Peter who once wrote letters to Giorgio who once taught Annette - they're so disparate in time, place and style (Suze, for example, narrates in second person, a difficult trick that Hall manages masterfully) that it seems better to look for repeated ideas and motifs rather than trying to force them into an artificial whole.

And there's plenty to look for here. Hall's incredibly accomplished prose creates four very distinctive voices, which nevertheless echo each other in increasingly interesting ways. The title, 'How to paint a dead man', is fully illuminated only at the very end of the novel, with a long quotation from an early modern artist's handbook on the exact way to convey a corpse's skin colour when painting on panels or walls. This recalls the Renaissance attention to anatomical detail and Vesalius's `Fabric of the Human Body,' and is reflected throughout the novel in the ways the various characters mentally dissect their own living bodies. His foot trapped between two rocks on the moor, Peter gruesomely imagines the possible injury; 'Is the foot dangling loose on just a thread or two of skin... the tendon severed and recoiling up the back of the leg' whereas Suze considers the destruction of Danny's body in the lorry accident that killed him. Annette, having gone blind as a child, has no idea what she now looks like, and her mother refuses even to describe the colour of her hair to her - 'It is a vanity to ask such things... and what does it matter if she can't see it?' However, worried about her daughter's developing good looks, Annette's mother also tells her that any gropes or kisses will leave actual physical marks on her body - black blotches that will convey to everyone that she's been up to no good.

Bodily imagery doesn't only keep the novel continuously connected to the physical world, but is a central element in its theme. The sense of the construction of one's actions in muscle and bone is a reminder that we are all just flesh that will one day rot, but an inactive body is a living death. Suze's friend Maggie has been in a coma for years, and when Suze goes to visit her in the hospital she notices that although Maggie is her age, thirty-five, 'she looked like a girl, the muscles of her face blissful and unused.' However, this is only an imitation of life; `The nurse once told you her muscles are so wasted that if she woke she would not be able to use them. Imagine a moth carrying a tractor on its back, she had said to you.' Suze is left feeling half-dead herself after the death of Danny, her `mirror image', but finds a way to reclaim a semblance of life by embarking on an affair, discovering that sex has the power to reconnect her with her own body again. Her descriptions of her encounters with her lover are almost clinical in their attention to detail; 'In these moments you forget about everything else. You are not bereaved... When you are with him you are here, inside yourself, behind the calcium plates in your chest and pelvis, which rise and move against him.'

Therefore, sex and death are continously intertwined; the body may contain 'the skull beneath the skin', but it also contains the potential for new life, as Suze discovers when she becomes pregnant. Another elaboration on this theme concerns the place of art in life - all four of the main characters are artists to one degree or another. Annette's partial blindness lends a certain quality to her art, questioning the role of straightforward sensory experience, whereas Peter never really connects to the landscapes he paints until he spends a night trapped in the rocks as it starts to rain. 'There is an aspirin flavour to the air, an impending fizz... Peter looks up. There is just blackness and water... He can smell minerals being released from the stones all around, the perfume of the mountain.'

Outside thematic analysis, this novel was also, on the whole, compelling, although I found the 'English' half' - the voices and stories of Peter and Suze - far more vivid than the Italian section. Suze in particular becomes the driving force of the book. The slightly surreal atmosphere of Annette's childlike narrative prevented it from fully coming to life for me, although its ending was genuinely horrifying, and I found Giorgio's section difficult to get through at all, as it lacked the narrative drive of the other three and he never really seemed to come to life as a character, rather than as a bunch of ideas. However, I would still highly recommend this novel; having read Hall's three previous novels, I was eager to give this one a try, and it didn't disappoint. Although a slow read at times, it was consistently challenging and thought-provoking, and, I suspect, will reveal depths on a re-read that entirely passed me by the first time.


  1. I loved this book and agree that much more would be revealed on a re-read. I'd fogotten about that foot scene - her writing is so vivid it can be difficult to read at times. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed her other books - I've only read Hawswater, but look forward to trying the others.

  2. Glad the comments seem to be working now! :) And yes, I'm a big fan of Sarah Hall. As you seem to enjoy plot-focused books, I'd recommend Hall's 'The Carhullan Army', which is a tight, pacy novel about a dystopian future, before 'The Electric Michaelangelo', which even I with my penchant for character development found a little slow... but Hall is a wonderful writer, and anything she writes is worth a read.

  3. I own both books, but with your advice I'll ensure I read Carhullan Army first. Thanks!

    PS Thanks for sorting the commenting issue :-)

  4. thanks for linking this to Books You Loved: June edition. If you check back later in the month there should be a nice collection of books to read about. Have a great week.