Sarah Hall's Booker-nominated The Electric Michelangelo, is gritty, grimy and pushes the reader hard up against harsh reality.
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News Online
BBC News Online is reviewing one of the short listed books each day, leading up to the Booker announcement on Tuesday, 19 October.
Sarah Hall challenges readers to face sordid details
The tale begins in early 19th Century Morecambe Bay, as the young Cyril Parks fights an urge to gaze at the bloody phlegm being coughed up into a bowl beneath him.
Cyril - though prepared to roll in faeces for sherbet money - spends much of his time in a state of disgust waiting on the consumptive guests in his mother's hotel.
But Cyril is also artistic and is eventually drawn into a printer's shop where he meets a drunken "left-footed" Eliot Riley.
Riley poaches Cyril into the profession of "scraper", or tattoo artist. And, after a particularly arduous induction, Cyril finds success in this underground trade.
Riley dies and Cyril sets off for the mad environment of the US's Coney Island, known for its freak show dominated fun fairs, where he adopts the new identity of The Electric Michelangelo.
He falls for Grace, a fellow immigrant and Coney Island performer who lives with her horse in Cyril's apartment building.
She commissions him to cover her in tattooed eyes.
But this is no love story, unless it is about the purr of electric needle on weeping skin.
Sarah Hall creates a fun fair on the page, going right up to the bizarre individuals populating her story, turning them inside out and challenging readers to take a look.
The Electric Michelangelo is crammed with bloody-thirsty punters desperate to get as disturbed as possible for their shilling or cents-worth.
But, while many extracts from the book are excruciatingly graphic, Hall is equally adept at showing the soft underbelly of Cyril's world.
The description of Grace's silhouette carrying wispy hay across his apartment wall with her horse Maximus (tip toeing in sackcloth) behind her is a beautiful image and a gentle one.
Another fantastic passage portrays the spectacle provided by Morecambe's western pier burning down during a blizzard.
Hall draws a careful portrait of Cyril along with the two most influential people in his life: his loving, practical suffragette home-abortionist mother and drunken, vomiting, swearing Riley who remains distinctly more rogue than loveable.
This is an exhaustingly energetic book filled with emotion, historic trivia and sometimes sordid detail, all tied up into a very unusual plot.