Everything that Sarah Hall writes is luminous with genius. Her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, concerns the intertwining lives of four people, disconnected by place and time. Their stories take place adjacent to one another, are intimately connected, but never share the same temporal geography. For all its vibrancy and currency, its earthy people and gripping stories, this book is essentially a meditation on the nature of art. There is an exuberant and joyful celebration of the inner life of the artist, a basking in the mysteries, a revelling in beauty. It is a book full of love and loving, not at all cynical, alive with feeling.
There is something magical, too, in the way that Sarah Hall traces chains of coincidence and synchronicity: connections that are subtle, too oblique to be noticed, but which exert their power nonetheless on each of the characters’ lives. The people in this book are defiantly, irresistibly alive. Their deaths are tragedies, and yet, as the clever structure of the novel suggests, their deaths are not the end of them. In the perspective of the novel, art is life, and art survives death.
Hall’s writing in her first novel, Haweswater, put me very much in mind of Alan Garner and, sometimes, Ted Hughes. She understands the landscape intimately, physically, historically, and her people in Haweswater seem to rise out of the land, seem to be hewn from rock themselves. How to Paint a Dead Man is a more polished novel, more sure-footed and wider-ranging, but it still has that same organic, natural magic. There is something wildly exciting about writing that is so confident, so daring, so unafraid of its own themes and emotions. If you want a novel that makes you feel brave about writing, I recommend this one.