Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall is masterfully written. There are several aspects of the book that I would like to point out.
First, in some ways one of the strenghts to this novel is minimal number of characters, minimal number of cities, and minimal number of intereactions. There are four main characters; Cy, this mother Reeda, his mentor Eliot Riley, and the woman he falls in love with, Grace. The action takes place in two cities; Morecambe England and Coney Island, NYC. Significant dialogue happens in two taverns; the Dog and Pheasant in Morecambe and the Varga on Coney Island. Cyril Parks is loved and protected by a wise mother, Reeda, who runs a boarding house by the sea for TB patients and performs abortions late at night for local girls in trouble. Her emotional stability gives Cy a bedrock of natural compassion and internal resources. She dies of breast cancer and Cy decides to become apprentice to the alcholic Eliot Riley, an angry bitter drunkard who introduces Cy to the profession of tatoo artist. After the death of Eliot, Cy migrates to Coney Island and makes a living on the boardwalk and socializing at the Varga, the local diner for circus and carnival folks. He meets a young angry intelligent beautiful Russian Jewish bareback rider and her horse, Maximus. She is agnostic, skeptical, and obviously has seen much pain and disappointment in her life, which she keeps to herself. Cy loves Grace but her personality is so much stronger than his, that his courtship must be carefully plotted. I will not say more about the straight forward story line since I don't want to ruin the reading experience of others, but the point here is that Hall uses a very minimal approach so as to better explore the few characters and situations she introduces.
Second, Hall engages in skillful social commentary through the interactions of her characters, reminding me of the masterful job that VIctor Hugo does in Les Miserables. Social class and mileau commentary is best revealed by the manner in which the characters navigate to survive. Social commentary has more power through empathy than via lectures. This is true of Les Miserables as well as The Electric Michelangelo.
Third, Hall engages in insightful analysis of the art of the tatoo and the impulses that drive human beings to mark their bodies. Some people mark their bodies to show experiences they have survived, such as military service or service in a particular part of the world. Others, mark their body to show committment. Others mark their bodies to signify loss. Some seek a tatoo so that the painful experience acts as an initiation rite, taking them apart and building them again with a symbol to show they have been rebuilt. Some men select terrible images to attempt to warn other men to stay away from them, that they are dangerous. Her commentary on the purposes of tatoo are skillfully interwoven throughout the work.
Fourth, but you may ask "what is this book really about?" I would say that the overwhelming theme is recovery from loss, the resources we have to overcome loss, the lessons we learn from overcoming loss, and the baggage we carry into our next significant relationships and situations from our previous loss.
The language is poetic and vibrant, the characterization exact and empathetic, the flow of events was strategic, and in the end Hall has produced an incredible book. She wrote this book when she was 30 years old. She has certainly learned a lifetime of lessons in her short life and she reveals these lessons like a master.