Cyril Parks’ mother, Reeda, runs a consumptives’ hotel in the seaside resort of Morecambe Bay. The boy bears the responsibility of collecting and emptying the excess fluids of the hotel’s guests, those who are there to recover their health before returning inland to the polluted air. The consumptives are grateful for Cy’s pleasant ministrations, not realizing that his beside manner is impersonal, an extension of the services provided by the Bayside Hotel.
The hotel has been the family’s only source of income since Cy’s father was lost at sea in a terrible storm in 1907, the boy destined to know little of his father save the odd memory offered by Reeda; but Cy’s mother also performs other services in the dark of night, relieving young women of unwanted babies. The boy avoids knowledge of this unsavory and illegal activity.
By his mother’s death in 1923, Cy has become an apprentice to Eliot Riley, a local tattoo artist who has the skills of a genius when performing his art but is frequently drunk and incapable of finding his way home. Eliot is an excessively harsh taskmaster to his young student, but by the time Eliot encounters a misfortune that ends his professional career, Cy has discovered his own talent, endlessly fascinated by freehand designs drawn on the flesh of willing customers.
In time Riley’s death purchases Cy’s freedom and the young man sails to America with a forged passport, ready to begin life in a new world, anxious to make his own mark as a tattoo artist. Once in New York, Cy is naturally drawn to Coney Island, similar to the atmosphere and enterprise of the seaside town of his youth. Establishing his place of business, Cy’s reputation spreads as the Electric Michelangelo: “I paint hearts. And I paint souls. That’s what I do.”
In his tiny shop on Coney Island, Cy meets Grace, a circus woman who lives in his building and plays chess at a local watering hole. Tattooing an unusual design on her skin, Cy is captivated by Grace’s personality and independence. Occasionally lovers, the two develop a particular intimacy, yet Grace remains a tantalizing mystery, an enigma. Then a terrible event occurs that forever alters their lives, a tragedy that Cy is helpless to prevent, “a scene of unimaginable and accommodating violence.”
Hall’s research is rigorous, her prose Dickensian in detail but strangely passionless, the narrative extensive and often tedious, unrelieved by dialogue. These sturdy characters struggle, their lives driven by an innate urge to survive their circumstances. Only the accents change; the humanity remains the same, and Hall never flinches from the physical realities and random violence of her unusual tale.
By the end, Cy achieves the promised emotional depth, his relationship with the world improved by his feelings for Grace and her reciprocal friendship. This novel embellishes the lore of tattooing, exposing the intricate beauty of colored ink on human flesh, Cy defined by his experiences, his brief shining moment as the Electric Michelangelo.