I've failed miserably at reading all of the books shortlisted for the Orange Prize read before the awards ceremony on 30th May. I blame both the difficulty in getting hold of certain books in a timely manner from the library due to long hold lists and the distraction of other, shiny new books. I plan on finishing up the shortlist after the winner is announced.
Painter of Silence
is the story of Augustin, a deaf and mute man who is found on the hospital steps of Iasi, Romania. Through a connection with one of the nurses, Safta, the story of their shared childhood and war experiences slowly unfold, all told through art and silence. The idyllic world of their childhood has been forever changed by war and a brutal new Communist regime.
Painter of Silence
is the first shortlisted book to disappoint me. I went into it expecting a treat as generally I enjoy these human stories set in war and Eastern Europe. But from the first few pages I was disappointed with the story and Harding completely failed to engage me. At certain points in the book, I was bored and just hoping for it to end.
I think there are a few reasons I felt this way about the book:
*The lack of a clear feel for the setting - Harding told me this book was set in Romania before and after the second world war, but I would never have known otherwise. The country house with servants could have been practically anywhere and I didn't get a feel for Romania as distinct from any other country, there was nothing about Painter of Silence
that transported me to another time or place.
*Augustin himself - Maybe it's brave picking a deaf-mute as a central character and Harding did show the power of silence, but at times this felt like a convenient way of not addressing issues to do with the war - Augustin wouldn't have picked up on it so Harding didn't have to write about it.
*The lack of terror associated with the new Communist state - The best books set in this time period have a sense of the all-pervading fear that often went along with Communist regimes (Sofi Oksanen's Purge
is a great example). This was absent in Painter of Silence;
yes, people had to move home and Safta had to become a nurse, but there was too much emotional detachment for there to be any power in this.
So it's safe to say I had quite a few issues with this book. At certain points I even became angry with it as it seemed like such
a cliche of literary award winning writing (pick a war zone, choose a character with a unique perspective, offer some analysis of art and hey presto, you've won!). But what saved the book to some degree was the writing itself. I may have had issues with the story and characters, but the writing was simply stunning, quiet but powerful. I have no doubt that Harding is a talented writer but Painter of Silence
was definitely not a book for me.
2.5 out of 5
My pick for the Orange Prize:
I've not read all of the shortlist, but out of the ones I have read, I'm rooting for Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles,
a simply beautiful book.