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It is inexplicable to me how Harper Perennial, the publishers of this deeply serious novel, could have given it such a frivolous cover! The cartoon drawing of a girl dancing down a hillside with hair flying suggests a carefree romp, not the meditation on loss and perception that Sarah Hall gives us here. And it is certainly no preparation for a novel centered so much in the visual world, in which three of the four principal characters are artists. One of these (though acknowledged only in the front matter) is based on the painter Giorgio Morandi, probably the most fastidious Italian painter of his generation, whose mature work, heedless of contemporary Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, consisted entirely of paintings of bottles, meticulously arranged in a luminous opalescence.
While Hall's writing about art shows her love for the medium, her real subject is human feeling, and especially the way emotions can be aroused and distorted by the passage of time, the loss of possibilities, the ending of a life. Four protagonists take turns in the spotlight in a repeating sequence of short chapters. There is Giorgio not-quite-Morandi on his hilltop in Italy, working even as his death approaches. There is Peter, a landscape painter of rocks and mountains in the Northwest of England near the Scottish Border. There is Susan, a successful photographer in London, shocked by the death of her fraternal twin brother. And there is Annette Tambroni, an Italian teenager whose own sense of vision turns inward as she goes inexorably blind.
At first this is all you know. You have no idea why the author chose these four people and not others. You have only a dim sense of the time-frame. But clues gradually emerge. The sections with Susan seem to be contemporary; those with Giorgio are roughly mid-sixties (Morandi died in 1964); the other two fall somewhere in between. You also begin to discover connections between the four, some relatively close, others little more than a thread; I won't explain these, because there is great pleasure in the discovery. Hall gradually reveals more of each person's inner life, moving backwards in the case of the two men, and forward for the women. Giorgio, it seems, was a Fascist sympathizer until something happened to turn him in the opposite direction. Peter's second wife is as different as possible from his first, a relationship born in the cauldron of drug-culture Liverpool, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. Annette's blindness coincides with her coming into womanhood, those confusing discoveries only complicated by a prudish and protective mother. And Susan works through grief by turning to illicit sex, shocking at first but brilliantly evoked.
It is not a perfect book. Relatively little actually happens in it, and there are chapters (with Peter especially) which seem to hang fire. It is satisfying to see the four portraits getting filled out, but you want to see more of the background than the author shows you; you want to see them calling to one another from behind their frames; you want to know why the author has hung them on the same wall. Eventually, most of these questions will be answered, but not all of them; the rightness of the book is to be found in the mind of the reader, not in revealed fact. Sarah Hall has written a novel that honors her readers' intelligence, and assumes that they can make their own connections, thematic or literal. That in itself deserves five stars.