Boyd Tonkin: In the court of the crimson queen

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The Independent Culture

Novels as wildly imagined and richly written as The Electric Michelangelo often come with credits at the back - to a plush travelling fellowship, perhaps, or a grand writer's retreat in Italy. You can gauge a lot about Sarah Hall's approach from her acknowledgments. They include the Advanced Tattoo Clinic in Morecambe, and Fun City Tattoos in New York. "Yours," says the young Cumbrian-born writer with a verbal bow, "is a beautiful and terrifying art." And so is hers.

Novels as wildly imagined and richly written as The Electric Michelangelo often come with credits at the back - to a plush travelling fellowship, perhaps, or a grand writer's retreat in Italy. You can gauge a lot about Sarah Hall's approach from her acknowledgments. They include the Advanced Tattoo Clinic in Morecambe, and Fun City Tattoos in New York. "Yours," says the young Cumbrian-born writer with a verbal bow, "is a beautiful and terrifying art." And so is hers.

It seems unlikely that Hall, whom I was thrilled to see on the Man Booker shortlist, will take the prize. Never mind: a gifted British novelist of huge ambition and originality now has the visibility she deserves. The Electric Michelangelo is far from perfectly constructed - in some ways, she kept her debut Haweswater under stricter control - but it simply oozes promise and passion. There's an awful lot of blood in this carnal, corporeal book. It flows from the tubercular hawking of the guests in the Edwardian boarding house that Cy Parks's mother keeps in Morecambe; from the illegal abortions that open to him the mortal mysteries of the body; from the scars and wounds of Cy's practice as a virtuoso tattoo artist; and from the offstage carnage of the age of dictators that haunts the final act, when Cy sets up shop on Coney Island.

Many "best of" young British novelists strike me as anaemic to the core of their pallid little souls. Hall, in contrast, writes a prose crimson with desire, with anguish, with sensation. The tattooist's style matches hers: it's edgy, florid, grotesque, a purple riot of daggers and roses, breasts and hearts.

Read Cy's adventures in the skin trade as a parable of the artist's vocation. Or simply read them as a wonderful recreation of seaside culture on both sides of the Atlantic. But prose as highly-coloured as Hall's has to be savoured, not gulped. Serve pink and bleeding; then chew slowly.

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