Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Georgina Harding, literary fiction, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘Painter of Silence’ by Georgina Harding


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 320 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Georgina Harding’s Painter of Silence is one of those books that completely transports you into another world. The elegant language — Harding’s style is restrained but eloquent — and the Eastern European setting gives the novel a dreamlike quality, one that whisks you into another time and place, and then reveals the pain, heartbreak and horror of war in a rather understated but poignant way.

This deceptively gentle approach makes the story all the more affecting. I found it a quietly devastating read, one that lingers long after you have (reluctantly) finished it.

Set in Romania

It is set Iasi, Romania, during the early 1950s. The war might be over, but its effects are still being felt — and the Communists have ushered in a whole new set of fears. Many people are  adjusting to the new world order and some are continuing to look for loved ones that disappeared during the conflict.

When the book opens we meet Augustin, a rather strange and beguiling character wearing a lice-ridden coat and good military boots, who alights from a train, makes his way across a crowded city — trying not to cough “because he knows it will hurt” — but he carries no identity papers. The next morning he is found on the steps of a hospital.

It is clear by the dampness of him that he has spent the night out but it might be anyone’s guess how many previous nights he has spent outdoors. Certainly he does not appear, from the state of him, that he has lived a settled life or even fed regularly for a long time. He is frail as a young bird. […] The first few days they do not even attempt to ask him who he is. For most of the time he is either unconscious or so feverish that they cannot expect to get sense out of him. In his delirium he moans and cries out with strange animal cries, covering taut eyes with hands that seem too big, out of proportion with his emaciated body, scrabbling bone fingers across the sheets.

The hospital staff do not realise that Augustin is profoundly deaf — he was born that way — and cannot communicate, although he has a special talent for painting, drawing and creating paper cut-outs (the “Painter of Silence” of the title). He made a special trip to Iasi to track down a childhood friend, Safta, who is now a nurse at the hospital.

When Safta discovers Augustin is a patient, she is careful not to reveal to her colleagues that she knows him, because “it would be little help to him and none to herself”. We later discover that she is running away from a past, including a rather privileged background, for reasons of her own.

An idyllic childhood

The story charts Augustin’s slow recovery and his subsequent discharge from hospital. We gradually learn about his past, specifically his (almost) idyllic childhood growing up in a manor, owned by Safta’s parents, where his (unmarried) mother was the much-loved cook. We learn how Safta’s mother took Augustin under her wing, almost as if he was one of her own children, and helped to nurture his special talent for art, which flourished with her encouragement.

Despite his disability, he was never treated as an outcast, and the way in which Harding details his sibling-like relationship with Safta is probably the most touching aspect of this novel.

The pain of him watching Safta’s first fledgling love affair from the sidelines is especially moving, and then the knowledge that he can never leave the estate (because of his deafness) when war breaks out, is heartbreaking. But what is even more heartbreaking — and horrifying — is finding out what happens to him when he stays behind after everyone else has fled.

A story told through art

His experiences are revealed slowly via the drawings he makes for Safta. These are beautifully described by Harding — “figures on a road: black rectangles one beside the other like a row of ill-fitting teeth” — and these help bring Augustin’s story to life in a rich, visual way without the need for spoken words.

Harding writes beautifully about people and their relationships, and by using Augustin as a silent observer she is able to show the world through a different set of eyes.

Ultimately, Painter of Silence is a lovely atmospheric story, tinged by tragedy. It has just been longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize and, if there is any justice in the world, more prize listings will surely follow.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Bram Stoker, England, Fiction, horror, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

Fiction – paperback; Wordsworth Classics; 352 pages; 2003.

The horror genre isn’t my normal genre of choice. I spent my teenage years working my way through Stephen King’s (then existing) back catalogue, dabbled with some Dean R Koontz and a little James Herbert, before giving Anne Rice a shot. I read Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned and that’s about the sum total of my exposure to horror/vampire fiction.

But Dracula was always one of those books I intended to read at some point, if only because I wanted to understand how one nineteenth century novel could have such an influence on the popularity of vampires in modern day literature and films. I put it off for years and years, but during a visit to Whitby, on the north east coast of England earlier this year, I finally decided it was time to read the book. I had been to Whitby before, but this time around its connection with Dracula seemed to resonate more, perhaps because I’d seen a BBC TV production and recognised the Abbey and the Yorkshire coastline on the screen. (In truth, during my first visit in 1998, I was more interested in the “Australian connection” — Whitby is where Captain James Cook embarked on his famous Pacific voyages.)

Whitby is, of course, the fishing village where Bram Stoker sets some parts of the novel — where one of the main characters, Lucy, meets Dracula for the first time, in fact. But it’s also the place where Stoker began taking notes for the book while on holiday in 1890. It is a beautiful village nestled by the River Esk — and Stoker’s description, told through the eyes of Mina Murray, remains unchanged more than a century later:

This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, though which the view seems, somehow, further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green and is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town — the side away from us — are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes […] It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.

The story is told as a series of diary entries and letters from a divergent cast of characters — and there’s a few “news clippings” thrown in for good measure. The result is a well-rounded and fast-moving narrative that feels incredibly modern, almost as if the book had been penned in recent times and not in 1897.

The storyline is a familiar one, but for those who don’t know it it begins with Johnathan Harker, a young English solicitor, travelling to Transylvania to meet a client — Count Dracula —  about a property sale he wishes to undertake in England. Despite Dracula acting as a gracious host, Harker soon discovers he is being kept prisoner in Dracula’s remote castle and makes plans for escape.

Some time after a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, but all on deck — save for a dog, which leaps onshore never to be seen again — are presumed dead. The ship’s log reveals some uncanny experiences on board during the journey, and the hull is found to be carrying a strange cargo of earth from Transylvania.

Harker’s fiance, Mina, and her friend, Lucy, are in Whitby at the time. Lucy is a sleep walker and during one of her nocturnal strolls meets a strange man —Dracula — on the cliffs overlooking the town. Shortly after she mysteriously begins to waste away.

Dr John Seward, who has proposed marriage to Lucy, is very concerned by her deteriorating health. He calls in  in his old teacher, Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam who begins administering blood transfusions — all to no avail.

Eventually — and I don’t think this is much of a plot spoiler — Lucy becomes a vampire, and the finger of blame is being pointed in Count Dracula’s direction.

The action then moves to London, where the Count has been seen out and about. It turns out — by a strange twist of fate — that his house, on Picadilly, is right next door to Dr Seward’s. A band of vampire hunters is then brought together, including Harker, Mina, Seward and Van Helsing among others, to put Dracula’s rampage across London and England to an end…

The story of Dracula was a familiar one to me, but genuinely thrilling in places. Some of Stoker’s descriptions were also incredibly vivid and chilling, such as this scene in which Harker, trapped in Dracula’s remote castle, sees the Count’s head coming out of a window:

I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards and with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

The book also poses some interesting questions about science and faith, religion and folklore, topics that were been debated at the time in which it was written. Interestingly, the role of women in society is another theme, with Lucy representing the “traditional” weak-willed woman who succumbs to Dracula’s charms, and Mina, who is strong enough to fight him off and plays a pivotal role in his eventual destruction, representing the “new” female.

On the whole, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Dracula. The prose style was easy-to-read and apart from some clunky elements — Stoker’s inconsistent depiction of Van Helsing’s Dutch vernacular, for instance, was woeful  — felt incredibly contemporary. And there was plenty of suspense to keep me turning the pages long into the night. A truly great read and one I’d recommend, even if your tastes don’t normally venture into classic literature or the horror genre.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth Kostova, Fiction, horror, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova


Fiction – hardcover; Little Brown; 657 pages; 2005.

The Historian is a lush, richly evocative novel that explores the Dracula legend from an historical perspective.

In this gripping tale the narrator, a 16-year-old girl, discovers an intriguing batch of letters in her father’s library. Unable to resist reading them she unwittingly opens a dark chapter in her family’s past, which takes her on an ominous and dangerous journey, both physically and psychologically, across three decades and several countries. Along the way she learns the truth about her dead mother and how her father’s seemingly benign academic research has put them all at risk.

Essentially The Historian is a story about the quest to find the resting place of Vlad the Impaler, the real Dracula whose tyrannical rule in the mid-15th century resulted in thousands of gruesome deaths by impalement in the Romanian countryside.

Part travelogue, part historical drama, part detective story, this gothic novel is immensely readable. Kostova excels at capturing the details and atmosphere of specific places (her descriptions, whether of Oxford, Amsterdam, Venice, Instanbul or Budapest, are pitch perfect) and time periods (1930s Romania, Cold War Europe and Oxford in the 1970s). She is also a master at writing cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter, which only serves to keep the reader turning the pages (and reading long past this reviewer’s bedtime).

The narrative is cleverly constructed, deftly switching points of view and periods in history without ever confusing the reader, while the characters are strong, lively and well-rounded.

I particularly liked that this was not a Dracula book full of blood, coffins, murder and mayhem – instead Kostova presents the lore in an almost intellectual way, using the power of imagined historical documents, folk songs and legends to paint a believable, almost authentic, version of the Dracula myth.

My only quibble is that the story seemed to run out of steam at the end, and the conclusion did not seem particularly satisfying after all the suspense and atmosphere that preceded it.  That said, I thought it was a powerful, well written and entertaining novel that deserves the praise already heaped upon it by other reviewers. If only it would knock those Dan Brown books off the bestseller lists!