Hall (Haweswater, 2003) earned a Booker nod with this picaresque tale of a tattoo artist.
The story begins in the early days of the 20th century, with its hero, young Cyril Parks, trying not to look into a bowl full of mucus coughed up by one of the many consumptive guests at his mother’s seaside hotel. But look he does, and so must the reader, who will be treated to visions of various watery secretions—blood, sweat and much, much worse—as the story progresses. While his author indulges in an almost childlike fascination with ordure, Cyril himself develops a more pleasant—if not quite reputable—liquid passion of his own: He embarks upon a career as a tattoo artist. Ink becomes his medium, flesh becomes his canvas and his vocation takes him from the English resort town of Morecambe all the way to Coney Island. It should go without saying that Cyril meets a variety of colorful characters, including, but not limited to, circus folk. One might suppose that, given all the oddity and jolly filth here, Hall wants to expose the light that shines in shady places, to celebrate the beauty of the weird. Sadly, she doesn’t manage anything quite so interesting. Like the tattoo itself, this novel doesn’t penetrate very deeply. Hall has earned comparisons to Angela Carter, but the similarities between the two authors are only superficial. Despite all the mess, there’s no real menace here, no whiff of the uncanny, no arcane secrets obliquely revealed. There is a torrent of whimsy and caressingly lyrical description, but the effect of all this poetry is not enchantment; it’s weariness. The characters are flat, the story travels far without ever really going anywhere and the occasional attempts to philosophize about tattoos are generally fatuous.
A lot of flash, and not much more.