“Painter of Silence” by Georgina Harding – review

I’ve had this on my shelf for a few years; a slim, unassuming book that didn’t scream “read me now”, but I finally picked it up simply because I wasn’t sure what else I was in the mood for.  The contents are as understated as the exterior, but this is a novel that’s all the more powerful for its restraint.  On reflection, the subject matter is extremely harrowing, yet at the time of reading there was almost a dreamlike quality to events, as if everything was covered in delicate gauze that prevented the worst of the horrors from seeming completely real.  This isn’t a criticism; far from it.  In fact, as you get under the skin of the characters, the writing style starts to make perfect sense.

We first meet Augustin as a young man in 1950s Romania when, destitute and on the verge of a physical breakdown, he makes his way to the city hospital in Iaşi.  Once there, the medical staff are mystified as to how he got into his current state, since the patient doesn’t utter a single word and barely attempts to interact with anyone.  Then, as if ordained by fate, a new nurse appears on the ward and recognises the man she hasn’t seen for close to a decade.  Safta, the nurse, seems to know how to get through to Augustin, bringing him blank paper and a pencil.  Slowly but surely, the weak and isolated man begins to draw, just as he did many years ago.

From then on the novel progresses in a series of episodes alternating between Augustin’s youth and the 1950s.  We learn that Safta and Augustin were companions through much of their childhood, the boy being the son of a servant working in the grand country house belonging to Safta’s family.  Yet these most unlikely of friends are not only polar opposites in terms of class: while Safta lives a normal life of social interactions with sibling, cousins and friends, Augustin inhabits a world that only he can fully understand.  His silence in the hospital wasn’t, as many suspected, a physical reaction to a traumatic event; Augustin was in fact born a deaf-mute.  Kind-hearted Safta is the only one of his peers who makes any effort to befriend him and they develop an unspoken connection that continues for several years.  As time passes, however, Safta is lured away by the heady infatuation of her first romance and the prospect of adventures in a world that extends far beyond the family estate, and Augustin is left almost entirely without companionship.  And loneliness is not the only threat he faces, for the second world war is looming large on the horizon.

Although Augustin is the only one of the main characters whom we follow during the war years, back in the 1950s we begin to get a sense of how the conflict still echoes in the hearts and minds of those who lost members of their family or, and this is almost worse, those who still don’t know for sure whether their loved ones are alive or dead.  The Stalinist regime that took hold as the conflict drew to a close has also left the country in a state of paranoia and unease.  Adriana, one of Safta’s colleagues at the hospital, takes Augustin in and pretends at first that he’s her long-lost son, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before his presence will arouse suspicion and questions will start being asked by the neighbours and the authorities.  All of this leads me back to the feeling I described at the start of this review, that the novel’s events seemed ever so slightly distant to the reader, with the worst of the physical and emotional horrors kept an arm’s length away.  This sensation of being very much an observer, putting the emotional experiences of the characters together from fragments of their lives and trying to fill in the blank spaces – some of which last years – as best we can with our imagination is, I’m sure, a very deliberate choice on the author’s part.  Augustin himself lives in a state of being permanently divided from the rest of the world by his deafness and inability to communicate to others the nuances of his feelings, and for much of the book it’s as if we’re seeing events in the same way that he does – seeing and examining but never able to fully participate.  Safta too has to be content with imagining the terrible things to which her friends and family were subjected during the war after she left to escape Romania.  At one point she returns with Augustin to their old home, but he will never manage to describe to her the hellish things he saw or the effect they had upon him.  This clever novel is never about having tragedy pushed in your face through graphic or histrionic depiction.  It’s about watching, listening and then putting the pieces together to come to an empathetic understanding – just as it is for the characters themselves.

“Painter of Silence” is a novel that really sneaks up on you.  It’s quiet, thoughtful and the charatcer of Augustin, particularly during his childhood years, will tug at your heartstrings like never before.

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