Some novelists preach and pontificate about life and art. They speak directly and with assurance. Some novelists explore and imply. They speak indirectly. They speak through metaphor and suggestion. As the poet Robert Browning says, they "do the thing shall breed the thought." How to Paint a Dead Man is a novel that does the thing that breeds the thought. It is a complex book that teases the reader from page to page with the promise of great truths, and when it delivers those truths, it does so with the ambiguity to which all great thought should be entitled.
Sarah Hall weaves together what at first appear to be four very separate stories. They seem to have very little to do with one another. They are narrated through different points of view. They take place in two different countries, England and Italy. Each of the four is set in a different time period. Only gradually, is the reader made aware of connections between the stories. The speaker in one turns out to be the daughter of another. An Italian still life painter who narrates one story tutors a grade school class in painting, and the central figure in another is one of his students. In the end it turns out that there are relations between the characters in all of the stories.
More importantly, all the central figures are, in one way or another, artists. An interviewer questioning the author about the fact that two of the characters were artists provoked her to protest that, in fact, all of the central figures were artists. Two of them, the interviewer's artists, are painters, one, Giorgio, of still lives; the other Peter Caldicutt, a landscape painter. But Hall admonishes, of the other two, Susan Caldicutt is a photographer, and Annette Tambroni is a flower arranger.
"The Mirror Crisis," which begins the novel, is narrated in the second person, an unusual point of view to say the least, and in the voice of Susan Caldicutt. She is a fraternal twin, and she has just learned that her brother has been killed in a traffic accident. Besides being a promising photographer, she is also a curator working in a London art gallery. Her brother's death is devastating, not only as one would expect any death of a family member to be, but because they have as twins been two parts of whole. His death in some sense destroys her as well. One might be forgiven for thinking of Madeline and Roderick Usher.
"Translated From the Bottle Journals" is a first person account of Giorgio, an Italian painter modeled on the painter Giorgio Morandi. He is dying of cancer as he tries to complete a last painting, a still life arrangement of bottles. He is very much concerned with explaining the relationship between his art and life, to make clear that still life is still life – keeping in mind that still has more than one meaning. "The Fool on the Hill" is told in the third person from the point of view of landscape painter Peter Caldicutt, Susan's father. He comes from a working class background and is fond of inventing a Bohemian past for himself, especially for his children. He couples this with a continuing flaunting of convention.
The last of the four interwoven threads is "The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni." It is narrated in the third person in the voice of Annette, a young blind girl who lives with her mother, two brothers, and an uncle, and who sells flowers in the village market. Although sightless, her other senses have developed to the point where she is quite capable of "seeing," seeing especially that which may not be visible to those with sight. This is no doubt the divinity of her vision. One is invited to remember all Annette's literary forebears who found in blindness the ability to see.
These characters and their stories are the bones of the novel. The heart is in their thoughts and emotions as they struggle to understand themselves and their relation to the other, to deal with the essential isolation of each individual: "Inside solitude people see the many compartments of unhappiness, like the comb of a pomegranate." Indeed, objects speak more clearly to these people than do other people. Giorgio maintains that only when he can make Peter understand "the timeless gifts of nature morte," will he begin to understand "living art." Examples of nature morte" are the objects in still life paintings. Peter finds that the rocks on the mountains are alive; he wonders if they are out to get him. Objects begin to speak to the blind Annette.
Truth is in the object. When people talk, too often truth disappears in the noise, so that even when they mean to tell the truth no one can hear it. Peter has told so many tall tales of his younger days, that when he tries to give Susan one of Giorgio's bottles, she won't believe it is really his. When he needs help, no one can hear his cries. Annette's mother cannot protect her with constant admonishments to be careful. Annette finds it impossible to explain her fears about the beast she feels around her.
On the other hand: "The kestrel achieves perfection in stillness."
Still, one may not want to lay such a heavy burden on art and the artist. This is perhaps the significance of the novel's title. How to Paint a Dead Man comes from The Craftsman's Handbook by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini where he gives the aspiring artist instructions on how to paint a dead man. Giorgio parses this passage: "I have often wondered if the condition of death is perhaps less grave to the human anatomy than physical injuries. For in death there is release from suffering. Sadly, the master craftsman is unable to instruct us in the healing of wounds."