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The Electric Michelangelo

The Electric Michelangelo

3.5 7
by Sarah Hall

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Opening on the windswept front of Morecambe Bay, on the remote north-west coast of England, The Electric Michelangelo is a novel of love, loss and the art of tattooing.

In the uniquely sensuous and lyrical prose that has already become her trademark, Sarah Hall's remarkable new novel tells the story of Cy Parks, from his childhood years spent in a seaside


Opening on the windswept front of Morecambe Bay, on the remote north-west coast of England, The Electric Michelangelo is a novel of love, loss and the art of tattooing.

In the uniquely sensuous and lyrical prose that has already become her trademark, Sarah Hall's remarkable new novel tells the story of Cy Parks, from his childhood years spent in a seaside guest house for consumptives with his mother, Reeda, to his apprenticeship as a tattoo-artist with Eliot Riley - a scraper with a reputation as a Bolshevik and a drinker to boot.

His skills acquired and a thirst for experience burning within him, Cy departs for America and the riotous world of the Coney Island boardwalk, where he sets up his own business as 'The Electric Michelangelo'. In this carnival environment of roller-coasters and freak-shows, while the crest of the Edwardian amusement industry wave is breaking, Cy becomes enamoured with Grace, a mysterious East European immigrant and circus performer who commissions him to cover her body entirely with tattooed eyes.

Hugely atmospheric, exotic, and familiar, The Electric Michelangelo is a love story and an exquisitely rendered portrait of seaside resorts on opposite sides of the Atlantic by one of the most uniquely talented novelists of her generation.

Editorial Reviews

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In the 1920s, Morecambe Bay, a small English coastal town, was renowned, at least locally, for the purity and restorative powers of its air, taken regularly as a curative by the tourists who filled its hotels and restaurants. Young Cyril Parks resides there with his mother, a widow whose seaside resort becomes a haven for consumptives -- mostly men who've spent a lifetime in the mines and who now seek only a few moments of fresh air and relaxation.

From this landscape, The Electric Michelangelo, a finalist for the Booker Prize, tells the story of Cy, starting with his bleak childhood and his apprenticeship with a local tattoo artist whose capacity for drunken rages is matched only by his gift with the needle. Newly skilled, Cy departs for America and sets up shop on the Coney Island boardwalk, where he meets the enigmatic Grace, a circus performer who offers Cy his most bizarre commission yet. What transpires between them as Cy slowly transforms her entire body into a living work of art is a little like love, and new to a man who has always found contentment in solitude.

A magical pastiche of eccentric characters and colorful times, The Electric Michelangelo seduces with its detail and atmosphere. In her American debut, Hall has created a world as mesmerizing and it is unforgettable. (Holiday 2005 Selection)
Carolyn See
Sarah Hall, author of The Electric Michelangelo (a Man Booker Prize finalist), steps right out on that dazzling wire. She has nothing to do with established writers of dignity and wisdom like Philip Roth or Gail Godwin, or with the all-too-predictable avant-garde. She's out to do something different, and for the first hundred pages or so it's blindingly swell, like Stendhal describing the Battle of Waterloo, or Jack Kerouac's description of parking cars in a crowded lot or T.E. Lawrence when he cuts loose and sends thousands of noble Arabs roaring across unknown desert sands. It's amazing work.
— The Washington Post
Susann Cokal
True art is mysterious because an overall effect is greater than the sum of individual elements. The way to read The Electric Michelangelo, then, is to put aside quibbles about plot and allow the language and imagery to sweep you up. The best moments are like this glimpse of the aurora borealis over Morecambe Bay: "It was light that had neither the impatience of fire, nor the snap of electricity, nor the fluttering sway of a candle. It was light that was nature's grace, unhurried, the slowest, seeping effulgence." Like that mysterious light, Hall's novel is to be admired for its own slow grace.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Hall's mellifluous coming-of-age story about an apprentice tattoo artist from the north coast of England who reinvents himself in Coney Island, N.Y., is picaresque in its sweep and lovely in its lush description. This 2004 Booker Prize finalist, Hall's second novel (after Haweswater) but first U.S. release, follows Cyril Parks from his youth in the 1910s, as he grows up the only son of the widowed proprietor of the Bayview Hotel in Morecambe, through his hard-won apprenticeship to the seedy rogue Eliot Riley, under whose exacting tutelage he becomes a skilled tattoo artist. From his benevolent mother, Reeda Parks, who puts up consumptives at her hotel, he learns not to be disgusted by the spectacle of human misery. (Reeda also performs secret abortions and campaigns for women's suffrage.) Upon Reeda and Riley's deaths, Cy takes off for America and plies his trade among the vibrant array of freak shows at Coney Island. By 1940, he meets a local Russian chess champion, Grace, and during the course of their love affair he inscribes 109 eye tattoos all over her body. Hall's writing is pure joy, especially when describing the childhood seaside shenanigans of Cy and his boy pals. Agent, Emma Parry. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 tophilosophize about tattoos are generally fatuous. A lot of flash, and not much more.
The Independent
“A vivid depiction of changing seaside culture.... A smart study of a subtle but desreputable art.”
‘A dazzlingly atmospheric and imaginative read.’
Financial Times
“Her gorgeously embellished prose compels the narrative, along with the beguiling vignettes she conjures up . . . the effect is intoxicating.”
The Lady
‘Sarah Hall’s second novel, is richly descriptive, an evocative exploration of misfits and exiles searching for a home.’
INK Magazine
‘Hall’s sensuous and brilliant imagery does not disappoint.’
The List
‘Sarah Hall’s second book reads with all the colour, guts and flair of the 19th century tale - spinner.’
Jack Magazine
‘Hall conveys an arresting, colourful and complex world.... Even the most miniscule of nuances fanatically thought through and delivered.”
‘The Electric Michelangelo is a pleasure to read.’
London Times
“The torrential Lawrentian flow of her prose offers many heady pleasures.”
The Guardian
‘The Electric Michelangelo is a work of unusual imaginative power and range.’
Sunday Telegraph
‘The writing is so polished that it is hard to believe the author is only 30.’
‘Wildly imagined and richly written. Prose as highly-coloured as Hall’s has to be savoured’
Ham and High
‘Twisted and tantalising, this is beatifully written and a worthy successor.’

Product Details

Faber and Faber
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Electric Michelangelo

By Sarah Hall

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Sarah Hall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060817240

Chapter One


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.

He looked up and out to the horizon. The large, smeary bay window revealed a desolate summer scene. The tide was a long way out, further than he could see, so as far as anyone knew it was just gone for good and had left the town permanently inland. It took a lot of trust to believe the water would ever come back each day, all that distance, it seemed like an awful amount of labour for no good reason. The whole dirty, grey-shingled beach was now bare, except for one or two souls out for a stroll, and one or two hardy sunbathers, in their two-shilling-hire deck-chairs, determined to make the most of their annual holiday week away from the mills, the mines and the foundries of the north. A week to take in the bracing salty air and perhaps, if they were blessed, the sun would make a cheerful appearance and rid them of their pallor. A week to remove all the coal and metal dust and chaff and smoke from their lungs and to be a consolation for their perpetual poor health, the chest diseases they would eventually inherit and often die from, the shoddy eyesight, swollen arthritic fingers, allergies, calluses, deafness, all the squalid cousins of their trade. One way to tell you were in this town, should you ever forget where you were, should you ever go mad and begin not to recognize the obvious scenery, the hotels, the choppy water, the cheap tea rooms, pie and pea restaurants, fish and chip kiosks, the amusement arcades, and the dancehalls on the piers, one way to verify your location was to watch the way visitors breathed. There was method to it. Deliberation. They put effort into it. Their chests rose and fell like furnace bellows. So as to make the most of whatever they could snort down into them.

There was a wet cough to the left of him, prolonged, meaty, ploughing through phlegm, he felt the enamel basin being tugged from his hands and then there was the sound of spitting and throat clearing. And then another cough, not as busy as the last, but thorough. His eyes flickered, involuntarily. Do not look down, he thought. He sighed and stared outside. The trick was to concentrate and pretend he was looking out to sea for herring boats and trawlers returning from their 150-mile search, pretend his father might come in on one of them, seven years late and not dead after all, wouldnt that be a jolly thing, even though the sea was empty of boats and ebbing just now. The vessels were presently trapped outside the great bay until the tide came back in. Odd patches of dull shining water rested on the sand and shingle, barely enough to paddle through, let alone return an absent father.

Outside the sky was solidifying, he noticed, as if the windowpane had someones breath on it. A white horse was heading west across the sands with three small figures next to her, the guide had taken the blanket off the mare, the better that she be seen. As if she was a beacon. Coniston Old Man was slipping behind low cloud across the bay as the first trails of mist moved in off the Irish Sea, always the first of the Lake District fells to lose its summit to the weather. So the guide was right to uncover the horse, something was moving in fast and soon would blanket the beach and make it impossible to take direction, unless you knew the route, which few did in those thick conditions. Then youd be stranded and at the mercy of the notorious tide.

-- Grey old day, isnt it, luvvie? Not very pleasant for June.

-- It is, Mrs Baxter. Theres a haar coming in. Shall I be taking this now or will you need it again shortly do you think?

-- No, I feel a bit better, now Im cleared out, you shant be depriving me. And if I need to go again Ill try to make it to the wash room. Youre a very good boy, Cyril Parks, your mammy should be proud to have a pet like you helping her around here. Well spoken and the manners of a prince. Is it a little chilly to have the sash open today, luvvie?

The woman watched him from her chair. She resembled a piece of boiled pork, or blanched cloth, with all her colour removed. Just her mouth remained vivid, saturated by brightness, garish against her skin, and like the inside of a fruit when she spoke, red-ruined, glistening and damp.

-- Yes, Mrs Baxter, Im afraid it is. Would you like some potted shrimp? Mam made it fresh today.

-- Oh yes. That would be lovely. I do so enjoy her potted shrimp, just a touch of nutmeg, not too heavy . . .


Excerpted from The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Hall.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Jack Magazine
‘Hall conveys an arresting, colourful and complex world.... Even the most miniscule of nuances fanatically thought through and delivered.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Hall was born in 1974 in Cumbria, England. She received a master of letters in creative writing from Scotland's St. Andrews University and has published four novels. Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (overall winner, Best First Novel) and a Society of Authors Betty Trask Award. The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Eurasia Region), and the Prix Femina Étranger, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Daughters of the North won the 2006/07 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. How to Paint a Dead Man was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Portico Prize for Fiction. In 2013 Hall was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a prize awarded every ten years, and she won the BBC National Short Story Award and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Brief Biography

Charlotte, North Carolina, USA and Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
Date of Birth:
January 6, 1974
Place of Birth:
Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
B.A., The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; M.A. in Creative Writing, St. Andrews University, Scotland

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Electric Michelangelo 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was a WONDERFUL book. i found it by accident, and am now recommending it to EVERYONE. if you have a tattoo, if you've ever considered getting a tattoo, or if you've wondered what the draw to tattooing is...this book gives you the inside look. it's an incredibly moving story and the way it's written makes the reader feel like they are a part of the action, they're watching it all happen first hand. very beautifully written! i swear that i could smell the ocean air and feel the crush of the crowds at coney island while i was reading! i was reading a bit every chance i got...a page here and there on my lunch break, till all hours of the mornings...i couldn't put it down. I LOVED this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I consider this book to be a modern classic. It is flawless. This is the sort of writing that seems to be completely devoid of rough drafts. This is the sort of writing that seems as though it simply poured from the core of the author. Every sentence is a little masterpiece. Each page is littered with alliterations, metaphors, imagery, tastes, smells. Positively beautiful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The beautifully descriptive language haunted me as I read the book and I could not stop thinking about it when I wasn't reading it. The characters are so deep and intriguing -- an English tattoo artist trained by a drunk artistic genius moves to Coney Island and falls in love with a horse-riding circus performer. I haven't read anything this wonderful since Bel Canto.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Your phrase 'one of the most uniquely talented novelists' is absolutely unforgivable misuse of the English language. Something or someone is either unique or is not. There is no degree to unique. One is not most unique or quite unique or mildly unique. Unique is just that. Nothing more. It requires no adjective or superlatives. I should expect better from a publisher, an entity dealing in the buying and selling of words.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been reading for years and this is one of the worst books I have ever read. I kept asking myself...'Who cares about any of these characters' and 'why am I wasting my time?' The story never picked up for me. I believe Sarah Hall has talent, albeit misdirected.