Painter of Silence

I finished this novel on the same morning that the Orange prize shortlist was announced. Would I have picked it for the top six, had I not already known it would be there? It’s hard to say because this is a deceptively simple novel written in a style of deceptive gentleness and serenity. But it is a story that stays with you, and which continues to blossom in the mind long after the experience of reading it is past.

It opens in a monochrome city in Communist Romania that still bears the scars of recent warfare. A thin young man struggles against exhaustion and malnutrition to make it to the steps of the hospital, where he is discovered by the early morning shift of nurses. Once admitted, the enigma deepens, as he carries no papers and is unable to speak. Adriana, a motherly middle-aged nurse realises that he is deaf and dumb and Safta, a much younger nurse, brings him paper and pencils in the hope of communicating with him. This is not just a random guess; Safta knows the young man although she will keep that secret to herself for the entirety of the narrative. He is Augustin, or Tinu, the illegitimate son of the cook at the country manor where Safta grew up. Safta and Tinu were born six months apart and grew up together, were even partly educated together when Safta’s mother had philanthropic hopes of overcoming Tinu’s disability. But Tinu is a strange mixture of porosity and resistance, locked away in his silent world. His real strengths lie with horses, with whom he has a natural affinity, and with drawing, by means of which he makes sense of and masters the world around him.

Together Safta and Adriana care for Tinu, and continue to look after him when he is discharged from the hospital. For Adriana he becomes a substitute for the son who remains missing after the war. For Safta he is a secret responsibility and a significant part of her past. What she does not realise is how significant he is, for Tinu did not end up at her hospital by chance. Instead it turns out that he made his way to her specifically in order to tell her a story he does not know how to tell, about a tragedy he experienced in the prison camps, concerning a young man whom Safta once loved.

The narrative slips seamlessly back and forth between the luxurious manor house at Poiana in the glory days when Safta and Tinu grew up there, and the wretched present in a city partly ruined by bombing and the brutal Communist division of property, whose people live side by side in suspicion and uncertainty. The two strands of the story move ever closer together: the narrative of the past catches up with the present in the atrocities of the war, and the narrative of the present recounts the return journey that Safta and Tinu make to Poiana in order to unravel the tale that Tinu must tell by means of his drawings. It’s an amazing achievement on Georgina Harding’s part that the tone of the writing remains unswervingly constant, its elegiac elegance never falters despite the dreadful events it must incorporate. But the ending, which I found immensely touching in its surprising neatness, seems to unite everything that happens, good and bad, in an unexpected moment of grace. That ending seemed to me to validate the serenity of the prose.

War stories are always faced with the problem of saying the unspeakable, of finding ways to describe, if not explain, the ghastly things man will do to man in times of crisis. It is a masterstroke of this novel to create a main character who is himself without words. A door opens in this narrative onto another kind of existence, one that hovers on the brink of the unimaginable, in the strange experience of deaf and dumb Tinu. Much of what happens to him arrives without a meaning, and so the passages where he must undergo the atrocities of war are immensely moving as they add extra poignancy to those incomprehensible cruelties. And yet, the absence of language also insulates Tinu in some way, makes him stronger, more resilient, even in his frailty. This is a subtle book and an immensely patient one; patient in the way the characters treat Tinu, patient in the attention Tinu brings to his life, patient in its philosophy of enduring grief, loss and misery in the awareness that everything passes. And the more I think about it, quite possibly a strong contender for the Orange prize.

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16 thoughts on “Painter of Silence

  1. Wonderful review. I have ordered it today as so much sounded like this would be a book for me. I’m looking forward to it.
    How a writer speaks of the unspeakable, of atrocity is something I’m interested in but I think it offers much more than that.
    I’m not sure how well known Georgina Harding is.
    Have you read anything else by her?

    • Caroline – after your amazing war and literature readalongs, you’ll have so many perspectives from which to consider this novel. But I do think you’ll find it interesting, and the writing is wonderful. I haven’t read anything else by Georgina Harding, although I’ve seen other reviews of her novels around the blogworld. I get the feeling she’s up and coming at the moment.

  2. I’ve starred this to read later; this is one of the few Oranges that I bought outright when the longlist was announced and although I do plan to just read the longlist at my own pace this year (instead of rushing through all of them before the prize is announced, as I thought I would, as I have before), I do plan to read this one in the coming days. I’m quite looking forward to it, and all the more now that I’ve peeked (i.e. skimmed, because I’m spoiler-phobic) at your thoughts on it.

    • Buriedinprint, I shall be so interested to hear what you make of it! And I like your plan of working through the longlist at your own pace. I felt there were a lot of really interesting books in it this year. I’d already read two, have now read two or three others and will read several more. It’s a great way to find new authors (as if I really needed more authors I’m longing to read! ;) ).

  3. This does sound very good. I will keep an eye out for it. I like that you say “the tone of the writing remains unswervingly constant, its elegiac elegance never falters despite the dreadful events it must incorporate”. Sometimes when books get too sad or threatening, I have to stop reading them for a while. This book sounds like that transition from things happening to terrible things happening would be smooth.

    • Ruthiella, I know just what you mean. When I began this novel I felt a little nervous in case I was going to have to read about atrocities I didn’t want sticking in my imagination forever more. But I was fine reading it and had no problems – Harding deals with the tough stuff with a gentle hand, often choosing not to represent war crimes graphically. I was grateful for that!

    • Stefanie, yes, I have read some of the others. Aifric Campbell’s On the Floor and The Grief of Others by Leah Hagar Cohen both recently. And before the longlist was announced I’d read Ali Smith’s latest and The Pink Hotel. The books are all so very different I find it hard to judge – and all judging panels end up with certain things they are looking for, just as any group of readers would. The best news is that they have all been extremely well written and good stories – which is as much as you can ask of any longlist!

  4. Wow, lovely review! I got the sense that the book grew on you more as you wrote the review – is that true, or just my imagination? Anyway I do like the sound of this. I particularly liked your point about war stories – you’re right, it’s a brilliant device to have the main character literally unable to give voice to what he’s experienced.

    • You are such a sensitive reader, Andrew! And you’re quite right. I did feel I appreciated more about this novel as I wrote about it. It’s a grower, you know? It takes time to think your way around it afterwards.

  5. Thank you for an insightful review, litlove. As always, you’ve presented the case for a book with fluid eloquence. I marvel at how a story can be so complex and multi-layered and yet is deceptively simple, leaving what is unsaid as its main thematic thrust. I’ll definitely keep this in mind… I like the title already.

    Speaking of the Orange shortlist, I’m glad Canadian Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues is included. It’s on my TBR list and I sure would like to hear what you think of it.

    • Arti, I have a copy of Esi Edugyan’s novel but have been slow to start it as it has such a dark and violent tone to it. I am a wimp these days! But now it’s in the shortlist, I really should give it a go – and I’d love to know what you make of it too. And I completely agree – those deceptively simple yet profound books are amazing. I wish I could write one!

  6. I really enjoyed this one. I also think it’s a strong contender. I still have Half Blood Blues to read, but so far, Painter of Silence would be my runner up (after State of Wonder–my favorite read of 2011). Although it was somewhat deceptively simple, I still found myself reading it slowly and carefully.

  7. Pingback: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding « JoV's Book Pyramid

  8. Pingback: Orange Reading: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding | Iris on Books

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