The curious title of this book gives no clues to its contents other than to suggest that art is the link which binds this book together. Even the quotation from Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, from which the title is taken and which is included at the end of this book, only confirms that subtlety, colour, light and shadow are a necessary part of the way in which Sarah Hall paints her characters.
Signor Giorgio is an Italian artist famous for his obsessive depictions of a small group of bottles. Dying of cancer in a small town in Umbria, he looks back on his life and work, meditates on the meaning of art, remembers a past troubled by war and loss, and has daily battles with Theresa, his housekeeper, to maintain his smoking habit. One of his fond memories is of a young English artist, Peter, who once wrote him stimulating letters about art but who never included his address, so could not be answered.
Thirty years later, Peter Caldicutt, successful, middle-aged and described by his daughter as “one of his generation’s formidable eccentrics”, still struggles with the demands of art, both philosophically and literally. Trudging the rugged Cumbrian landscape which is his inspiration, he slips and becomes trapped. So begins his own musing on life, death and art, as he also contemplates the irony of being so unpredictable and unreliable that no-one will immediately miss him or know where he is and he may well die of exposure.
A little later again, Sue, Peter’s daughter, is also an artist. Her own field is photography but she is currently curator of an exhibition of objects which have had close personal significance for famous artists. A bottle given to her for the exhibition by her father forms a link with Signor Giorgio. Sue is reeling from the sudden, accidental death of her twin brother. Her sense of self has been fragile since childhood, but now, again, she is distanced from everything around her. She talks of herself as ‘you’, struggles to feel present, and discovers that only in the dangerous and illicit affair with her close friend’s husband can she feel alive and human. Sex, described in graphic detail by Sue, is voyeuristic and coldly un-erotic in spite of shared lust and passion, but only through this sex can she find relief from the numbing separation from reality which she feels.
The fourth person whose life we enter in this book is a young Italian girl, Annette Tambroni, whose growing, congenital blindness has given her a special quality of imaginative vision which Signor Giorgio, who briefly met her whilst teaching art to local schoolchildren, describes as a gift for discovering invisible things. As readers, we experience Annette’s world through that vision, and Sarah Hall’s exceptional ability to convey the experiences and personality of each of her characters is at its best in Annette’s story.
Annette is innocent and vulnerable. She vaguely remembers a painting in her church which depicts ‘the Bestia’ but cannot describe it exactly and in her imagination it comes to represent all the unspeakable things which her obsessively religious mother fears for her but will not discuss. The atmosphere of suppressed sexual tension, especially associated with the men in Annette’s family, is palpable, but Sarah Hall also manages to create incredible beauty, even in the final horror that enters Annette’s life.
Four different characters, four different stories, four different ways of telling the stories and a shifting pattern of time-frames throughout the book, all make this an ambitious novel which poses challenges for both the author and the reader. But Sarah Hall writes beautifully, intelligently and, at times, with simple poetic flair. The chapter titles, ‘The Mirror Crisis’, ‘Translated from the Bottle Journals’, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and ‘The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni’, repeat in that order throughout the book as each character’s story develops; and inevitably, perhaps, some stories are more gripping than others. I must admit that Peter’s dilemma caused me to skip chapters in order to discover whether he escaped and survived. But I did go back and finish the other chapters, and Signor Giorgio, Sue and Annette each held my attention in different ways.
Structurally, and in some of its content, this is not an easy book to read but it is absorbing, interesting, innovative and a thought-provoking way of considering some of the many aspects of art.