25 July 2012

Book Review: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

Title: Painter of Silence
Author: Georgina Harding
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Format: Paperback
312 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Publisher

Painter of Silence is a wonderfully, evocative story about the power of friendship, family, home, and the terrible consequences of war.

Set in Iasi, Romania, in the early 1950s, a man is found collapsed on the steps of a hospital. He never speaks while he is nursed back to health, and the ward sister, Adriana, suspects he is a mute. Since his name is unknown, Adriana calls him Ioan after her son who never returned from the war. A young nurse called Safta hears about the mute and on a hunch, brings him paper and pencils. Safta recognizes him immediately but tells no one that she knows who he is.

His name is Augustin but Safta has always called him Tinu. He is deaf and mute but Safta knows he communicates by drawing. It has been years since they have seen each other.

The lives of Augustin, Safta and Adriana intersect and the reader gradually learns about each of their stories, and about the way life has changed in post-war Romania.

Augustin is the illegitimate son of the cook at Safta's grand family home, Poiana. Safta and Augustin were born just six months apart and they grew up together. Their close upbringing and exceptional bond meant Safta was the only one who was able to truly understand Augustin despite his inability to hear or speak. He learned to read a few words - his own name, plus two other names, Safta and Poiana. And he could write the name of the village, Poiana. That was his world.

When the war started, they lost touch with each other. Safta's family left the country but she stayed on and trained to be a nurse with the army. She needed to detach herself from her past so she didn't tell anyone about her privileged background.

When Safta and her family left Poiana, Augustin stayed behind with his mother and the other servants. The reader gradually learns what happened at Poiana during the war and the horrors that Augustin witnessed and experienced. His happy, closed world was shattered when the war started. And when he innocently draws everything he sees, he is unaware of the significance of his detailed observations and what the result might be.

Adriana refuses to believe her son will never return from the war and her life feels empty without him so when Augustin eventually leaves the hospital, she is happy to help him still further. She lets people believe Augustin is her long lost son, Ioan, so it doesn't matter that Augustin doesn't have any identity papers.

Augustin feels compelled to explain to Safta what happened while she was away from her family home but he can only communicate everything to her very slowly by creating detailed drawings. He is desperate to share his memories with Safta and make her understand what happened while she was away.

Safta realizes Augustin's drawings are his way of sorting the world around him but she is surprised when his drawings appear to relay an important message for her about Andrei, a man close to her heart at one time.

A strong sense of time and place is conveyed by depicting two very different worlds, Poiana before the war and Poiana during the war, as seen through Augustin's eyes. And the aftermath of the war and its effects on Safta and Augustin is clearly illustrated as their vivid memories are shared with the reader.

The reader is swept along by the subtle and eloquent prose that conveys strong images of people and places and the profound ways they are transformed by war. The past and present are woven together seamlessly.

When Safta and Augustin make an emotional journey and a startling encounter follows that turns out to be significant for Augustin, it is totally unexpected but makes for a very satisfactory conclusion.

Painter of Silence is a beautifully written story that shows the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a deaf mute. It's easy to forget that the characters aren't real. Indeed, I was thoroughly charmed by Safta and Augustin, and the way they could communicate without words. It's a poignant story about two people and the way their friendship changes their lives.

Captivating characters. Hypnotic prose. Painter of Silence is a lovely, unforgettable story.

Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment