Book review - Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Book review: ‘Burntcoat’ by Sarah Hall – art and love in the shadow of a deadly virus ★★★★

There’s something unsettling about reading a moment in history as that moment is still happening. There’s not the perspective that comes from distance from the event having passed, it feels all a bit too close to home.

Thankfully (I suppose?) the virus ravaging Sarah Hall’s fictional world is not Covid-19 but something even worse, even deadlier, even more contagious. If it doesn’t kill you the first time, it will live in your cells until it does.

Why would anyone want to read about a pandemic while we’re still very much not through the woods of a pandemic? For me personally, it helps me to make sense of our current time. And this is a short book that is ambitious in its aims – it interrogates the meaning of art, particularly in the face of death, what it is to be intimate, and how precarious and precious life really is.

The precariousness of life is something Edith, our protagonist, knows only too well. When she’s a child, living in rural Northern England, her writer mother has a massive brain haemorrhage. The spectre of her catastrophic injury hovers over them both – while she regains some function, the doctors warn that a similar event could happen again at any time. As such, Edith is raised ‘capably and neglectfully, by a borrowed woman and her shadow.’ Eschewing a chronological timeline, the novel jumps around from Edith’s childhood, her rise through the ranks to become a celebrated modern sculptor, her period of lockdown at the pandemic’s onset and the years that have passed since.

One of the axes around which the plot spins is Edith’s relationship with Halit, a chef who has fled war in the Middle East. They meet shortly before the pandemic descends, and not wanting to spend lockdown apart, Halit moves in to Burntcoat, the converted warehouse where Edith lives and creates her art. Their relationship moves swiftly, an accelerated timeline in the face of the oncoming apocalypse. Their intimacy is a place within which to shield from the horrors unfolding in the outside world – the overspilling hospitals, widespread food shortages, society brought to the brink of collapse.

‘Do you remember? Is that even possible? The dark, burning river. The turning tide; everything loosening beneath tight forces. None of it was happening and it was all unstoppable. Closing the door when we got back, and promising each other we would be all right. All we had was love, its useless currency, its powerful denial.’

There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s the well-written kind – not too anatomical or too metaphorical. The atmosphere around Edith and Halit is also built up in a thick and feverish and sensual way – Sarah Hall’s vivid descriptions of place reminded me of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater.

‘I would walk back to the grandfather house in the arboreal dusk, the leaves above luminescing and murmuring like the low voice of a woman. The morning sun behind the forest was golden and open, the mouth of a fish.’

Sarah Hall began this at the start of England’s first lockdown. And two years on, the book starts to make sense of what might come next. Maybe we’ll learn to treasure the unimaginably precious and infinitely fragile life we’ve been given, maybe we won’t.

‘The world doesn’t come back as it was before. The seas and mountains remain, the cities slowly fill up again, jets take off over ochre and turquoise aprons. Finance begins to move. Children are allowed to play together. Humanity is re-established. There is grief, its long cortège; the whole world joins and walks. Such shock is both disabling and enlivening; everything before was a mistake. We will do it differently; we’ll repent. Consume less, conserve more, make sense of our punishment. It’s been said the virus reached levels of superiority other pathogens never have. Like the vastation of ice ages, and condensed gene pools, language, blood and milk, it will evolve us. Of course, the old ways return. Our substance is the same; even with improving agents. We are our worst tendencies. We remain in our cast.’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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