Painter Of Silence by Georgina Harding
Georgina Harding's previous novels have taken the reader to the Arctic of the 17th century (The Solitude Of Thomas Cave) and to Britain of the 1960s (The Spy Game). Both have been widely praised.
Her new book, Painter of Silence, is set in Dumbraveni in Romania, and spans the period from the onset of World War II, through the war's ongoing impact, to the imposition of Communism.
In the early years, two children form a dogged bond that - more than Harding's diluted themes of war, poverty and dislocation - becomes the heart of the story.
Augustin is both deaf and mute, and communicates to the world by painting and drawing what he sees. Meticulously. Obsessively. The local school had refused to teach him, as it would have been "like trying to teach a stone".
Safta is the privileged daughter of the grand manor, with a will of her own and a feeble relationship with her parents. She has faith in Augustin's intelligence, admires his drawings enormously but is in the habit of letting him down.
Years later, in a dramatically changed Romania, the two meet in a Bucharest hospital. Augustin is scrawny and frail and no longer draws. Safta is a nurse and has turned her back on the opulent lifestyle of her parents who had fled to England.
The novel weaves back and forth from childhood and adolescence to present day. We get to hear much of the back-story through Safta, as she dredges up the past in order to snap Augustin out of his silence (state of non-drawing).
Nothing seems to work. The paper and pencil remain untouched by the hospital bed. It is only when they are furtively on their way back to their home village that the floodgates open and Augustin begins to draw the past (okay, I have missed out the little figures he made by the dozen when he stayed with a nurse post-hospital).
The premise is captivating, and although I enjoyed reading this, it felt as though certain things were held at a distance - like the world itself was on mute.
The physical setting came alive to some degree in the description of Augustin's drawings and paintings, but I wanted more. I wanted more detail. This was a period of turmoil, difficulty, hardship, confusion in Romania, but that seemed to be held at arm's length. I guess you have to chip away slowly at Augustin's silence in order to appreciate the cruel experiences that had smothered his desire to draw. At times Safta's voice felt like the mouthpiece of the author relaying the necessary information to advance the story. At other times I felt empathy for her and her determination to find her own place in the world, and the writing was elegant and spare.
Augustin, though, gets under your skin with his mix of vulnerability and stubbornness, his compassion and his insight. So while I would not rate this as a poetic masterpiece, it is definitely worth reading.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.