Published: 2012 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “We’re all so many people, aren’t we, nowadays? So confusing it is, I don’t know how anyone keeps track. There are the people we used to be, then there are the people other people think we are.”
Most people stumble through life without noticing many of the mundane beauties around us; seen everyday the intricate details become invisible. This why first person narratives – particularly historical ones – crammed with too much physical description can seem unrealistic or worse, overly didactic. Yet, as I noted in my review of Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, one of the ways a writer can overcome this problem is to craft a narrator who is exceptional, the sort of person who would notice more fully than most, the finest threads in the rich tapestry of their life. In her protagonist, Augustin, Georgina Harding has convincingly created just such an individual. Deaf and mute from birth, Augustin has grown up without language, communicating instead through pictures and sculpture. Through Augustin’s unique eyes Harding evokes her setting, 1950s Romania, in sensitive detail: “It was clear he had travelled a great distance to get there because the car was so thick with dirt. When they cleaned it the green came out from beneath the layers of dirt like a bottle dusted from the cellar.” The real pleasure of this quietly original novel isn’t in the overall plot, which moves at a glacial pace, but in the beauty of perceptions like these.
Augustin’s experiences are contrasted with those of Safta, a nurse in the hospital where he has been taken as a starving vagrant and who, it quickly turns out, is a childhood friend. Augustin’s mother was a cook in the grand manor house where Safta was born and the two children grew up side by side. Reunited in adulthood, and amidst the horrors of war and the restrictions of the new Soviet regime, the pair explore their memories and the experiences that brought them both to the hospital. I enjoyed the contrast between Safta’s reminiscences, bursting with foreign languages, music and sound and Augustin’s more visual observations. The young nurse’s breathy, almost stream-of-consciousness monologues with the friend who cannot hear her, but who understands her on a deeper level, also serve to balance out the physical intensity of Augustin’s experiences.
Before picking up Painter of Silence, I knew very little about the Romanian experience of World War Two and it was interesting to read a work that portrayed this in such an immersive way. Though Harding’s use of a deaf mute narrator feels very original, in places the book reminded me of Brideshead Revisited: suffused as it is with a similar tone of melancholy and nostalgia for the lost age of the great country house. This isn’t what I’d call a gripping book. Although there are elements of danger and tension, particularly when the authorities start investigating those who are helping Augustin, it’s not suspense but the delicate beauty of Harding’s descriptions that kept me turning the pages. If it had been much longer I feel this book could have outstayed its welcome (as I felt her debut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, did a little), but around 300 pages seemed the perfect length for this impressive evocation of a world beyond language.