Bloomsbury, £14.99, 312pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Painter of Silence, By Georgina Harding

Georgina Harding's third novel is deeply and patiently concerned with a principal character who can neither hear nor speak. Augustin, the only child of Paraschiva, the cook on the Valeanu family estate at Poiana in the Romanian countryside, is discovered early in his life to have a remarkable gift for drawing.

It is this gift - a way of telling stories in shapes rather than words - that sustains him in circumstances he has no means of comprehending. He knows nothing of war except the presence of soldiers with guns. When he is deprived of paper, pencils and crayons and the company of animals, he loses what precious identity he has ever had.

In the opening pages of Painter of Silence, Augustin is on the brink of death. The time is the early 1950s and Romania is now in the firm grip of Soviet Communism. The emaciated man is taken into hospital in Iasi, where a nurse called Safta (a diminutive of Elisabeta) recognises him. Safta Valeanu and he were born within six months of each other at Poiana, when the old feudal order prevailed. She brings drawing materials and leaves them by his bedside, but she does not tell the other members of the nursing staff who he really is.

He is given the name Ioan and adopted, after a fashion, by the kindly Adriana, Safta's superior. When he is well enough, he begins to draw again with the same near-manic intensity he displayed in his childhood and youth. Harding describes and decodes his figures and the rooms and spaces he has them occupy, so that his halting, often interrupted, narrative becomes hers. She undertakes this difficult task with complete fictional confidence.

This is a very quiet book, as befits Augustin's predicament. It moves back and forth in time with no discernible grinding of gears. A fine distinction is made between the Romania of vanishing wealth and privilege and the regimented, impoverished hell that replaced it. There are passages of modulated lyricism that convey Safta's sexual awakening and the beauty of the natural world.

Harding's careful prose is at its most matter-of-fact, however, when relating an incident both absurd and terrifying, with the result that melodrama and sentimentality are dispatched swiftly. It is only afterwards one registers that this is the key scene in the entire story, revealing the essence of Augustin's blighted, but inspired, nature.

Painter of Silence insists on being recommended because of its unassertive orginality, its sense of history, its knowledge of the unsaid and the unsayable, and - not least - its delightfully surprising ending.

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