Sometime during 1950, a nameless man is found on the doorstep of the hospital in Iasi, Romania. The man is deaf and mute, which makes it harder to identify him. However, a young nurse called Safta recognises him as Augustin, someone she used to know before the war. Safta used to live in a manor as the daughter of a privileged family before World War II. Augustin was the son of the family’s cook. Back in the day, all he had to express himself were his drawings. Now, in the hospital, Safta brings him paper and pencils to enable Augustin to pick up his former pastime. As the story unfolds, we switch back and forth between Safta’s memories of the early days of their lives, while Augustin paints pictures of what happened to him and the people Safta and him knew during the war.
When the Orange Prize longlist was announced Painter of Silence was the title I instantly gravitated towards. The strengths of Painter of Silence were exactly what I expected them to be. There is quiet and beautiful storytelling, a wonderful style that results in some stunningly beautiful passages, and the surprisingly evocative storytelling accomplished through Augustin’s visual observations and drawings. Augustin’s descriptions of scenes, the beauty of some of them, but mostly the haunting and emotional qualities as he pictures the war, are what make this book special and a wonderful read. From the very beginning, the tone is set when the special quality of Augustin’s pictures are described:
“When Tinu drew a room he drew it empty. He drew it as it was but somehow what you saw was not the room but its emptiness. With a door you saw the opening. When he drew a pitchfork left leaning against the barn wall you saw its abandonment.”
Despite these wonderful qualities, I was left feeling a little bit of an outsider to the story for the first half of it. In a way this is part of its strength; as Augustin tells you his side of the story indirectly, the images have a sort of quiet impact about the war that is devastating in a way that makes immediate sense to the reader. Nevertheless, there were moments when I just wasn’t sure how much I really cared, where I felt that perhaps to make this book a perfect fit for me, I may have needed more. There were moments when the quietness of the story left me confused as to where it was headed. I usually do not require a book to have an immediate and thrilling storyline – really, I mostly enjoy the quieter fiction – but in this case I felt that it was perhaps, at times, a little bit too quiet for my taste.
Painter of Silence left me with an admiration for the accomplishments of Harding’s writing, and the originality of telling a story set during World War II through someone who only has images to tell you what happened. Unfortunately, it did not have as much of an emotional impact on me as I had hoped and expected when I first picked it up.
Other Opinions: Lizzy’s Literary Life, Still Life With Books, Cardigan Girl Verity, Tales From the Reading Room, Cornflower Books, 1morechapter, Sam Still Reading, nomadreader, Reading Matters.
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