The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 340 pages, 2004

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: My second Booker Prize shortlister read of 2004.

Synopsis: In The Electric Michelangelo, Hall guides us through the life of Cy Parks, whose odd upbringing in a hotel filled with the fatally ill seems to have him destined for an unusual life. Cy meets a tattoo artist, Eliot Riley, and subsequently finds his life expanding and changing for both the better and the worse as he walks among a secret world of people with the craving to brand their outsides with symbols of their souls.

Why you should read this book: For oftentimes ugly subject matter, this book is beautifully written. Hall’s sharply illustrative sentences remain strong whether discussing boyhood mischief or a yearning love. With blunt exactness, Hall describes the gory and sometimes gut-wrenchingly painful life of Cy. The characters of the novel are down-to-earth despite the oddness of themselves and/or their circumstances, so even Cy’s love interest, a head-to-toe tattooed lady, is masterfully shown to be sympathetic and intriguing without being sentimental or sensationalistic. While the book is classified as historical, the writing is bitingly contemporary. Passionate and occasionally brutal, The Electric Michelangelo crackles with the force and fury of life itself.

Why you should avoid this book: Electric Michelangelo is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Blood and guts abound; descriptions of illness, tattooing, and alcoholism are vivid, to say the least. Hall’s style might be a touch too lyrical for some people, but you might find the subject matter counterbalances the meandering sentences.

Opening paragraph:

If the eyes could lie, his troubles might all be over. If the eyes were not such well-behaving creatures, that spent their time trying their best to convey the world and all its gore to him, good portions of life might not be so abysmal. This very moment, for instance, as he stood by the hotel window with a bucket in his hands listening to Mrs Baxter coughing her lungs up, was about to deteriorate into something nasty, he just knew it, thanks to the eyes and all their petty, nit-picking honesty. The trick of course was to not look down. The trick was to concentrate and pretend to be observing the view or counting seagulls on the sill outside. If he kept his eyes away from what he was carrying they would not go about their indiscriminating business, he would be spared the indelicacy of truth, and he would not get that nauseous feeling, his hands would not turn cold and clammy and the back of his tongue would not begin to pitch and roll.

Fabulous quotes:

They couldn’t understand Cy’s interest in tattooing. They couldn’t understand it under all his disappointment, his giving up drawing – for Riley didn’t even let him hang up his good designs in the shop, though he had made plenty, nor when he was not free-handing did he let him trace the acetate stencils, print them with charcoal, Vaseline a back and leave a preliminary mark for Riley to finish, like a proper apprentice blocking in compositions for the master. And they could not understand Eliot Riley, with his scowls and his songs, his bear-baiting sneers and his never certain behaviour when they came to call for Cy.

In the dim hallway her irises were so dark they seemed pupil-less, deep, vertigo inducing. There was a languid, sombre curve to her bottom lip. He could find a loveliness to her face as he looked at her that was underlaid with something aged and earnest. She was compelling in a way, and he wondered if he should perhaps lean in and kiss her, he was drunk enough to warrant it. He was about to when she made a sound under her breath, a murmer of enjoyment which also contained a marginal dissatisfaction, as if she was tasting a spoonful of soup and trying to decide which ingredient to add next. Then she spoke.
-Yeah, anyway. I’m going to come and find you soon, Electric Michelangelo. I need your help with something. I think the time is right for a change.

Also recommended: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre; Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

Also by this author: Haweswater.

Fun tidbit: Hall likes to have a hint of poetry within her prose, and lists Dylan Thomas, Yehuda Amichai and James Tate among her favourite poets.

Would I read more by this author? Absolutely. I was very impressed, and since Hall is only thirty, I have faith she’s only going to get better.

Awards: Man Booker Prize: shortlist, 2004.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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