Sophia Waugh

... in the fall of a sparrow

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Painter of Silence

Georgina Harding

Bloomsbury, pp. 312, £

Set in Romania in the 1950s, this is the story of two people, Augustin and Safta, who are both very different and yet very closely linked. Safta is the daughter of the big house, while Augustin is the deaf mute illegitimate son of the cook. Safta’s mother, high-minded, overly religious since the death of a baby, disappointed in her marriage, takes Augustin into the schoolroom until it becomes clear that while the boy has an impressive artistic talent he can learn nothing, and so he is returned to the stables.

War comes, the house is dismantled, Safta, mourning her lost love, leaves the countryside and becomes a nurse and Augustin is left with the remaining servants and the dogs.

The story is told back and forth between the 1950s (written in the irritating present tense) and the time before the war.

Where the book succeeds is in evoking the atmospheres of the old, luxurious, idle life, the crumbling of the status quo and the overtaking of a new order.

Before the war there are servants, picnics, rides on Lipizzaners. It is a world of light, verandas, enfilades. Afterwards it is one of increasing fear, of sugar and flour stashed behind fake walls, chickens and pigs hidden in the forest. In the city the people also live in fear, feeling watched, mourning the missing and the dead. While some of the plot is clichéd — soldiers take over the big house, destroy the pictures, shoot the chandelier, rape a girl in the fields, accidentally kill a servant — there is still a pervading melancholy in the decay of beauty which lingers in the mind.

There is melancholy too in Tinu (Augustin)’s story, until the frankly unlikely happy ending in which he really does ride off into the sunset. Perhaps the most haunting element of the novel is the presentation of a totally silent world. The noises Tinu makes are very few — a weird sound deep in his throat when he is communicating with horses, and a rare but joyous laugh that always takes the reader by surprise.

Otherwise, to make himself understood, he draws dark, intricate pictures of the places he has lived in, and makes cardboard cut-outs of the people he sees. Because of his profound deafness, he becomes everybody’s confidant, so those afraid to speak out can tell him everything, knowing their memories and their thoughts are safe. And there is the sense that this man, so cut off from the world, is in many ways less lonely than those who surround him.

This is an odd book. The writing, like the title, is self-consciously literary, and so understated it is conversely overblown. It is interesting that a novel about someone without language should be written in a style which is so intrusive. The author is also keen on a simile — and I use the singular advisedly. Tinu is endlessly compared to a bird — ‘he is as frail as a fallen bird’ — and when, towards the end of the book he and Safta return to their childhood home and Safta finds a perfectly preserved dead sparrow, the imagery is too blatant.

All in all, Georgina Harding nearly succeeds. She left this reader wanting to know more about Romania and King Michael, for instance, but not eager to pounce on her future novels.