Some authors write the same book over and over again. Sarah Hall is not one of those writers. With novels focusing on the Cumbrian countryside (Haweswater), the American adventures of an English tattoo artist (The Electric Michaelangelo) and the dystopian future (Daughters of the North), Hall has proven that there's no topic she'll refuse to tackle.

Her fourth novel, which made the 2009 Man Booker Prize shortlist, is no exception. How to Paint a Dead Man may be Hall's most ambitious work yet. It features four main protagonists, jumps back and forth in time from post-war Italy to modern-day England, and deals with themes of art, loss and death. Hardly a cheery read, yet Hall's tight, stylish prose, marked by inventive turns of phrase, carries the reader through the story even when there's not much story to be had. The strongest thread (to this reader, at least) was the voice of Susan, which opens and closes the book. Her twin brother, Danny, has just died in a biking accident, and she's coping with the loss through an affair with her married coworker. Also compelling is the voice of Susan's father, Peter, a landscape artist who finds himself trapped in the wilderness he loves. His thoughts while waiting for rescue take the reader across America in the tumultuous 1960s art scene and behind the scenes of his passionate first marriage. The two other voices come from another country and an earlier time: An Italian artist with a tragic past whom Peter holds a one-way correspondence with, and Annette, a young girl who lives in the same Tuscan village and has been diagnosed with a degenerative sight disorder.

Though the stories at first seem disconnected, they gradually reveal hidden connections between the, and this unfolding keeps the reader engaged. Each narrator, in his or her own way, contemplates the power of art and the acceptance of mortality. Along with contemporaries like Scarlett Thomas and Lydia Millet, Hall is staking new ground for women in the "novel of ideas" category. Full of haunting images and thought-provoking ideas, How to Paint a Dead Man will linger in the mind.

 

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