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Sarah Hall’s How To Paint a Dead Man [Review]

June 1, 2011

Sarah Hall’s ‘How To Paint a Dead Man’ is a fine piece of literature. Often breathtaking in the images it conjures. But I have a gummy spot in my brain for novels about painters. Or maybe I can’t be bothered to read lyrical prose that simply sort of describes characters and what they do, instead of having any specific plot-turns. Nothing is happening really, and all the prettiness is not exciting and lush like Annie Proulx’s gorgeous The Shipping News (a book I love and where actually a lot of things happen) .

The novel is also written from the perspective of four characters, which is not a sin exactly. But. I really was just interested in two of them — Suze, the twin whose brother dies in the first page and her father, a famous sculptor. I prefer my characters deeply flawed and lost. Truly.

In this set-up then, I am quite critical of passages that seem…well, tiresome.

Danny never went in for monogamy. He never chose. I can’t do conventional, he used to say. They’re all so nice. And I’m way too weak with the booze in me. He told them all very early on that his love was a shared commodity, and went with the ones who didn’t mind. The liberals, the hippies, the partygoers, and those girls for whom causal consensual sex was a step up in a relationship.

It doesn’t bode well when you un-pack what is sitting above. Surprisingly thoughtless for a novel that is actually quite thoughtful.

What does it mean? … for “causal consensual sex” to be a “step-up”? That otherwise, these women choose to have non-consensual sex in a relationship? Or maybe that these women’s history of sexual violence makes them especially vulnerable? Or that because they are not in monogamous set-up, they must have vapidly low self-esteems?…a rule that somehow doesn’t seem to apply to Danny’s character. The narrator of the passage above is having a secret affair on her devoted partner.

Men can be frivolous in love, sex and art, while women simply cannot.

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