Inspiring Older Readers
The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall
I remember Sarah Hall’s book being published in 2004 to significant acclaim and although I bought a copy I somehow never got around to reading it. All these years later the natural churn of titles on my shelves brought it to the front of the pile and I picked it up and settled down with it. From the very outset I was captured. Hall’s prose is dense and extraordinarily visceral and it’s the kind of writing that conjures up vivid pictures and characters you can really buy into.
This is the story of Cyril (Cy) Parkes whose mother, Reeda owns a small hotel in Edwardian Morecambe Bay. With his father drowned at sea, Cy is pressed into service helping look after the tubercular residents who come to Morecambe for the air. Cy is repelled by his duties – emptying bowls of phlegm – but his mother cuts him little slack and we will go on to discover that she is both a supporter of the suffragettes and involved in a humane but illegal abortion service. She is not a woman to under-estimate or mess with.
Cy’s childhood seems mapped out – he’s an ordinary boy (if a tall one) with the usual boyish occupations and friends – until one day he stumbles on the unconventional, self-destructive Eliot Riley who is also a tattoo artist. Cy is drawn into Riley’s orbit and when Reeda dies Cy must choose an apprenticeship with him or an ordinary life with his Aunt.
Cy opts for Riley and a life in the underground world of tattoos, carnivals and eccentrics who want to use their body as a canvass. Cy’s time as an apprentice to a great but unreliable artist is an education in its own right and he learns about human nature, sex and the power of art.
The inevitable death of Riley catapults Cy into a new phase of his life as a tattoo artist in the United States and Coney Island in particular just as the Second World War is raging in Europe. His life is colourful, always busy and always on the very fringes of what is legal or acceptable but he’s good – he’s very good – and in demand. And then one day he starts to develop the most important relationship of his life with Grace, a mysterious East European immigrant and circus performer who fills his every waking moment. Grace has a very specific project in mind – she wants her body covered from neck to foot in the same repeated image, a single eye.
However, tragedy strikes just as Cy seems to be on the verge of turning his longing for Grace into something more tangible. While she is playing cards, a religious zealot obsessed with returning her body to God’s original purity, throws acid on her torso, not killing her but disfiguring her dreadfully.
With Grace lost to him he carries out a dreadful revenge on her assailant before heading back home to Morecambe to live out his old age. This time, back home, he becomes the mentor of a young punk girl who, it seems, will take on his skills just as he had done with Eliot Riley.
Although this book folds you into its story it’s not one you can't rush. The pain and the suffering at the heart of the book and Cy's art are part of the experience and essential to understanding Cy’s world view. The art of the tattoo is a central metaphor not because of the pictures the needle and ink can create through pain but because of the tattooing process. As he draws on the body the subjects find themselves pouring out their stories as the ink and blood run together and somehow the needle binds all that experience into the image on the skin.
This is a most impressive read and one I’m annoyed it’s taken me so long to get around to. I very much like this observation from Jem Posters that was published in The Guardian in 2004:
Hall certainly knows how to shock, but the shock is an essential part of a serious artistic and - in the best sense - moral enterprise. And she also understands the value of reticence. Somewhere behind the events described in detail in these pages lies the carnage of a world war, the terror of the Holocaust; yet the reminders of the larger picture are offered with a careful obliquity simultaneously suggestive of artistic tact and a sharp awareness of connection.
I would recommend this to anyone but I would also counsel you to take my advice and only start it when you’re feeling strong enough for the physical assault Hall’s prose makes on you.