I mean several things by that statement. First, that each of her novels has that flush of enthusiasm usually associated with a writer's first exhalation of talent. Second, that each of her novels reinvents the type of novelist that she is. Third, that each of her novels is perfectly distinct from the others. All of these things lead me to conclude that Sarah Hall is a quite extraodinary kind of novelist. Yes, she writes from her life, like nearly all writer's do, but at the same time she writes from a cache of literary imagination which is both broad and deep, and stocked with variety. Not for her the reappearing characters, or the thinly veiled autobiographical plot. Everything is fresh, everything is buoyant, everything is burning hot. In this sense she reminds me most forcibly of Hilary Mantel.
Her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, could not be more different to her third novel (The Carhullan Army), which in turn could not be more different from her second novel (The Electric Michaelangelo). It shares some thematic direction with these earlier books - art and artifice, nature and nurture, reality and interiority - but its style and approach is light years away. It is novel told in four interwoven voices. In 1960s Italy we have the unnamed artist who paints nothing but still-life, finishing his final painting in his isolated studio as he waits for death; and, a few years later, a blind teenage flower-seller Annette Tamborini, his one-time student. In 1990s Cumbria there is landscape artist Peter, and in present day London Peter's daughter, Suzy, a photographer and curator grieving after the sudden death of her twin brother. It is in no way a spoiler to say that all the characters in the book are somehow linked, one to the other, in a dense network of influence and association, and that these links are slowly teased out. It isn't a spoiler because this isn't a book which can be spoiled by knowing its plot; it is the kind of book where the plot is nothing but furnishings for the light to fall on in revealing ways.
All of the characters are in pursuit of their interiority. In pursuit, if you like, of the reality of themselves. But not just of themselves, of themselves in context; of the relationship of between the self and the world. They are seeking to bridge the gap they inevitably feel between their minds, their bodies and the world. I think it would be true to say that all four are brought to this crisis of selfhood by a sort of trauma - in this sense How to Paint a Dead Man is very Freudian. The death of Suzy's twin, Danny, her Other Self, has left her absent from herself, narrating her life in a creepy second person:
You feel absent. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognise hosted within the glass. ... You can't quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life, that's all. Your body doesn't contain its spirit just as the mirror has relinquished your portrait. You are elsewhere.
Like many of us she has always located her essence in another person, her brother Danny, and without that person she experiences a dislocation, an unhousing. She drifts, empty and gagging against the loneliness of living inside her own skin. She reaches up her hands to her face only to realise she has been crying. Her boyfriend Nathan is too seperate from her to be a replacement - we hardly meet him. The only way she can reconnect with her living self is during adulterous sex with her friend's husband - she requires a surrogate through which to experience life.
The Italian artist, by contrast, does not require a surrogate. Like Peter, his counterpart and correspondent, he experiences life through the captured image. In using the skill and co-ordination of his brush, he plays God and recreates a world in which to situate himself. He has dedicated his life's work to the same subject - bottles, bottles and bottles. All different types of bottles; sometimes bottles with other objects; but always bottles. Early in the novel a journalist confronts him about what he perceives to be the monotony:
The same painting, over and over. What does it mean? He asked this of me as if it were answerable, as if it were important. And I said to him, I do not paint bottles. The man must have thought me mad or obtuse or cunning perhaps... He does not see beyond the quartet of fruit in the dish, such as it is presented - a plum, two apricots and another plum. On the canvas he sees only the surface: the green paint and the grey and the white, which will not pass over a border unless it is directed... To him, the painting on the easel is a funeral. It is careful and uncluttered, and it is not loud enough for him to understand.
The artist's refusal to 'move on' from the bottles is apparently both an acceptance of his limitations - he could spend a whole life and never adequately mirror life - and a hopeful longing - I can, I must, I will reproduce life. It is an endeavour he cannot regret, even as he moves towards the end of his days.
For Annette Tamborini life has gone dark, and in the dark monsters are lurking. Although she has only gradually lost her sight through illness, and although she can still hear, smell, feel and taste the world she used to know, she has lost her ability to construct a visual reality. Instead she is at the mercy of her imagination, and the fantastical (and real) beasts that dog her footsteps. She imagines them, senses them, fears them; and it is this fear that threatens to define her. It is only because of her powerful memory of the still-life painter, and the art classes he taught her as a child, which anchors her in the real world. Tragically and yet inevitably it is an anchor that cannot hold. In Sarah Hall's vision life, art and death are simply too closely woven - fall into one net and you fall into the others. This seems to me the grand narrative of the book: life = art = death. It is a Big Concept to be express minutely, through just four connected experiences, but How to Paint a Dead Man is an ambitious book and mostly successful.
It must be clear by now that I feel strongly about Hall's work. This isn't just because she is a stunning prose stylist, or because she tackles Big Ideas in intimate, psychological works, although this undoubtedly recommends her. For me it is also because she is one of the first, and only, contemporary authors I have read consistently, and who has consistently provoked me to write about her writing. How to Be a Dead Man doesn't just make me think it makes me want to think more, and there is a difference. It makes me want to be a better critic, so that I can construct better reviews about it and express more perfectly its effects. It makes me want to read better, and more deeply. It is a novel about people striving to represent and recreate their experiences, and it makes me want to strive to match them.