26th Jun 2012
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Receiving rave reviews and rapturous praise, Georgina Harding’s new novel Painter of Silence has appeared on many must-read lists this year, and was a hot favourite to win when shortlisted for the Orange Prize back in May.
Using words to tell the tale of someone who can only communicate stories through pictures, this is an exploration of the history of two people, and two countries, and the power of place.
Augustine grew up alongside Safta, when he lived as a boy at her parents’ manor in Poiana, Romania, before the outbreak of WWII.
In the early 1950s they meet again – Safta now a nurse tending to this broken man, whom she slowly comes to recognise.
Augustine was born a mute, but thanks to his ability to communicate via his drawings, his experiences at the hands of the invading Communists are revealed.
Descriptions of the detailed drawings are the mis-en-scene of the novel itself, the photographic memory of Augustine revealing things deeper than the drawings themselves.
Introspective and contemplative, this is not a novel of action, with a density of emotion running through it in place of drama.
The proliferation of gaps and voids in the subject matter is important: the lack of words, family ties disappearing, the grey streets, and the exact, detailed drawings of rooms painstakingly executed by Augustine that are devoid of one thing – people.
This contrast is what drives the exploration of emotion that underpins the novel: ‘She feels the whiteness like a dam holding back all the coloured flood of memory.’
The writing, however, seems to have too many similar gaps, or omissions, and, just as a communication barrier is at the heart of the plot, there was a degree of impenetrability in the writing. Described as lyrical by some, I found the writing fragmented and frustrating; dreamy, sometimes verging on dreary.
This was a book I wanted to like, its premise and parameters suggesting something quite beautiful – but one that was a tough read, giving little sense of satisfaction at the end.
Recommended for: Those who like to explore the abstract through something concrete, work hard for their rewards and take their time over images.
Other recommended reading: Harding’s debut novel, The Spy Game; Madeline Miller‘s The Song of Achilles (winner of this year’s Orange Prize) and Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick – another novel of displacement told through the eyes of a Romanian refugee.