How to Paint a Dead Man – Sarah Hall

The BookDepository

Long listed for the Booker Prize 2009

The great thing about reading the Booker long list is that I read books I would never normally pick up and am occasionally rewarded by finding a gem like this. I shouldn’t have liked this book – it has virtually no plot and has whole chapters about a person who paints bottles. It sounds like the sort of book I’d run a mile from, but for some reason I loved it!

I was transfixed from the first page. The heart-breaking emotions of a woman who has lost her twin brother affected me straight away. I think I had the tissues out within a few pages and it is so rare for me to be moved by a book that I knew this was going to be something special.

The second chapter introduces the life of an Italian painter, and while I found this section the weakest of the three, it was an important lull in the heightened emotions of the surrounding sections.

The final scene describes the father of the twins and his battle for survival after he becomes trapped in the hills. The book weaves together these three separate scenes, and that is all they are really, exceptionally well. There is no plot – just glimpses into the lives of these three characters.

I don’t know how this book managed to grip me from beginning to end when so many seemingly similar books have failed. I can only assume that Sarah Hall has an outstanding talent, or is perfectly in tune with my fears and emotions.

Sarah Hall is from Cumbria, so the occasional snippets of dialect may prove difficult for some to understand, but as I spent my teenage years in the Lake District this wasn’t a problem for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It deserves it’s place on the Booker long list and I plan to seek out all her previous books.


Have you read any books written by Sarah Hall?

Which one was your favourite?

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  1. Verity says:

    That sounds really good Jackie; I enjoyed The electric Michelangelo (and I came to that via the Orange list one year). I love the idea of whole chapters devoted to people painting bottles!

    1. Jackie says:

      I think I have Electric Michelangelo here – I collect anything short listed for the Orange prize – I’ll have to bump it up the list.

  2. Claire says:

    I am looking forward to reading this. I am intrigued and think that it’s possibly one of those books that you can’t give much away whilst listing your thoughts because there isn’t much to give away, that it’s all in the writing.
    That’s what’s so great about challenging ourselves to read the entire longlist: we’ll read books that we may not normally pick up instead of just reading the ones that immediately appeal.

    1. Jackie says:

      There isn’t anything to give away at all. It is all in the writing and emotion.

      This is the reason I love reading book lists too. Sometimes you read something that you never normally would and discover it is amazing. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one.

  3. Victoria says:

    I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this. :-) I’ve read all three of Sarah Hall’s previous books and I think she is an incredible talent too. Of the three my least favourite was The Electric Michelangelo (it was a bit too baroque in its stylings for me!) but I think both Haweswater and The Carhullan Army are little masterpieces. Can’t wait for my copy of To Paint a Dead Man to arrive.

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m so pleased to hear that all her books are good – I’ll be keeping an eye out for them.

  4. Andreea says:

    I am glad you liked the book so much! It does indeed sound like a great read! Thanks for this great review!

    1. Jackie says:

      It is very good – I hope you like it if you decide to pick it up.

  5. Sandy says:

    There are some writers that just have that gift…they can be writing about anything, but manage to move you, sometimes to tears, with their words. This is going on the Jackie list. I’m going to need a separate sheet of paper just for your recommendations!

    1. Jackie says:

      I wonder if this book is my equivalent of Connie May Fowler? I think the Cumbrian connection may have made this book seem extra special to me. I will be interested to see what an American makes of it.

      Would you like me to create a special spreadsheet for you?! LOL! A lot of my favourite books have never been mentioned on this blog – it would be a shame for you to miss out on any!!!

      1. Sandy says:

        You laugh, but that’s not a bad idea! Think of how many five stars I am missing!!!! And you are right, I was thinking about commenting that Connie May Fowler just speaks to my heart. It is a hard thing to explain. Now, I just downloaded a book on my Kindle a couple of days ago by an author that weaves lighthouses into her mysteries. I have high expectations. It could be the most boring book, but if it is about lighthouses, I may fall in love. Be prepared for unsubstantiated, emotional gushing.

  6. Diane says:

    Jackie, You are the reading queen lately–so many good books. I want to read this one. I have her earlier book Electric Michelangelo on my shelf.

    1. Jackie says:

      I have gone through a very good selection of books recently. There are a few more great reviews waiting in the pipeline too!

  7. I’m so glad to hear you liked this one Jackie, since I’m participating in a round table discussion on it in a few weeks!

    1. Jackie says:

      I hope you enjoy it too. I’d be interested to know what you discuss. It is such an emotional book, but there isn’t much going on so I don’t think I’d be able to talk about it for long.

  8. Good for you getting out of your comfort zone!

    1. Jackie says:

      It is nice to be rewarded for it for once – normally I understand why they are out of my comfort zone the moment I start reading!

  9. Unlike you, I wasn’t planning on reading the Booker longlist. I’d decided I do want to read The Wilderness and The Little Stranger, and that’s all I set out to do (I’d read the Coetzee irrespective, because I love his writing). However, this book is the one that keeps flashing in my head, anytime I think of the Booker longlist. And the other one is Heliopolis – specially as it’s based in South America.

    So, I decided I’d read three, and now I want to read five. How soon before I’ll say I want to read them all?

    Thanks for the review – it’s almost convinced me to order this book!

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m not sure you’ll want to read them all – but I think there will be a few others that need to be added to your list! I am half way through Not Untrue and Not Unkind and it is stunning. I’ll let you know if the ending is good, but I think you may need to add it to the list too! Then there are a few more I haven’t even started yet, but the judging looks amazing this year – I have a feeling they are all going to be great.

  10. claire says:

    I’m really glad you liked it, Jackie. Among the longlist titles, this was the one screaming out for me to read. I’m really excited about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      It was screaming to me too! Unlike you it was making me run away though! I hope that it lives up to your expectations and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

  11. Swati says:

    That sounds very interesting. I’ve never read anything by Sarah Hall before but her name has cropped up enough for me to be curious. I very much doubt I’ll get round to this one this year but it will be in my list for 2010.

    1. Jackie says:

      I have been interested in a few of her books before – mainly due to the Cumbria connection, but somehow never got round to reading one. I’m so pleased I have now discovered her and will try to read all her books now.

  12. Melody says:

    You’ve intrigued about this book. It sounds very interesting! I’ve to check out the book. Thanks for the review, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m glad I intrigued you – I hope you like it if you do decide to read it.

  13. Kathy says:

    This sounds so good – I’d love to read it just to encounter the snippets of dialect from Cumbria.

    1. Jackie says:

      To start you off:
      Marra means friend and Marrow is a jokey version of the same word!!

  14. Beth F says:

    I like books that offer a slice of life, or a glimpse into a scenes. I haven’t read anything by this author.

    1. Jackie says:

      I don’t normally like books like that, but this one is special!

  15. Jenny says:

    I love the title enough to overcome my general dislike of books that are low on plot, but I have a hard time reading about people who lose their siblings. I am so close to all my siblings!

    1. Jackie says:

      I am really close to my sister, so that might be a reason this book affected me so much. It is hard to read at times.

  16. megan says:

    I’ve been very curious to hear more about some of the books on the Booker long list since, as usual, I seem to have encountered very few of them. This one sounds fantastic, and luckily I don’t always require a good deal of plot in my books as long as the characters are interesting. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m doing my best to work through the list and should have a few more reviews up next week. There are some great books on the list this year.

  17. Dan Holloway says:

    I’m utterly sold on this from what you say. I love this kind of interwoven “story”. And it’s so refreshing to find that it exists, after witnessing yet another long lecture this morning on a writers’ site that shall remain nameless about Dwight V Swain, and how if a book didn’t have “staeks” and “peril” it wasn’t a proper book. If you read that kind of thing enough, you begin to believe it’s true. So how lovely to come here and find you recommending what looks like a gem.

    1. Jackie says:

      It is a shame that there are sites out there dictating what makes a proper book – this book is the perfect example of how a non-standard story really works. I hope you enjoy reading it if you do decide to pick it up.

  18. Karen says:

    I’m really drawn to this one – sounds like a wonderful read. Still trying to track down a copy in Aust – might have to pick it up when I am in the UK – in 3 weeks time!!!!

    1. Jackie says:

      That sounds like a good plan! Let me know if you have any free time in London – it would be great to meet up!

  19. I loved How to Paint a Dead Man. My favorite of the Booker nominees I’ve read so far, although enjoying Adam Foulds’ Quickening Maze right now.

    1. Jackie says:

      Interesting! I wasn’t a big fan of Quickening Maze, but loved this one. My favourite so far is The Wilderness. I look forward to seeing what you think of the rest of the list. Are you planning to read them all?


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