How to Paint a Dead Man, By Sarah Hall

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The Independent Culture

Sarah Hall's fourth novel is a tour de force in a number of ways. First, the technical virtuosity of its structure. It's told from four alternating viewpoints set in four different periods: a second-person narration set in the present day, focalised through Susan, a photographer poleaxed by grief for the death of her twin brother; a third-person narration set a few years earlier from the viewpoint of Susan's dad Peter, a middle-aged, formerly hell-raising artist trapped beneath a boulder on a Cumbrian hillside; a first-person narration set in the 1960s, from an Italian painter, Giorgio, with whom the student Peter corresponds; and a third-person narrative centred on Annette, a young blind girl who tends Giorgio's grave. (Her younger brother grows up to have an adulterous affair with Susan in the present day.)

The interlocking of these time-separated narratives, and the way that each casts light on the others, is breathtakingly clever. Then there's the characterisation, which is both bright and deep: each of the characters is distinct, believable, complex, flawed, and human – all too human, and for that reason lovable.

Then there are the themes: this novel is a meditation on death, on grief, on aging, on the power of the past to shape the present, on art and on the art of life.

But the best reason for loving this novel is the poetic quality of the prose: Hall loads every rift with ore. So, for example, the advantages of working at home instead of in office are summed up thus: "Stovetop espresso five times a day instead of thin metallic tea pissing out of a machine into a plastic cup."

How to Paint a Dead Man was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize. Why on earth wasn't it shortlisted?

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