Sarah Hall is one of my favourite contemporary authors. No one composes short stories as exquisitely as she does. Indeed, she has become the first author to win the BBC National Short Story Award twice, with judges describing her as a virtuoso of the form.
She has now released three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero and Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.
As far as the novels go, I’ve only read two – Haweswater (excellent) and The Wolf Border (good). So, I was pretty excited to know that she had a new novel coming out this year. Did Burntcoat, then, live up to my high expectations?
Those who tell stories survive.
Thus begins Burntcoat, the first virus novel I’ve read published in the pandemic period; a melancholic, compelling novel about passion, creativity, death and disease.
Edith Harkness, in her late fifties, is a renowned sculptor residing alone in her home Burntcoat, situated at the industrial edge of the city. At the very beginning, we sense that she is dying – she is in the thick of making various arrangements including a trip to the florist.
As the novel progresses, we are privy to a slew of flashbacks from Edith’s childhood to the time when she embarks on a passionate affair with Halit just before lockdown is imposed. This lockdown is precipitated by the deadly novavirus, which had been wreaking havoc worldwide (pretty much like Covid). There’s a difference though. Hall’s novavirus has the ability to resurface much later in a deadly fashion and explains why Edith’s days are numbered.
Consequently, Edith harks back to the past, where certain critical phases in her life are revealed to the reader layer by layer. We learn of Edith’s bond with her mother Naomi, a woman who survives a brain haemorrhage. But while Naomi does not lose her life, she loses her sense of self, a transformation that Hall expresses beautifully.
The haemorrhage had caused massive damage, and the procedure came with its own penalties. A precise section of bone had been sawn and removed, the pristine vacuum of the organ breached. They’d mended the tissue, clipped the vessel, and the brain’s flow of blood had been redirected. Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality they saved her life; they could not save her self.
The marriage disintegrates and Edith chooses to stay with her mother. Their existence is wild, nonconforming and not rooted in society’s perception of normality, they are outsiders and they come to accept it.
Intertwined with this narrative is Edith’s discovery of her vocation as a sculptor, her difficult years in art school, followed by a sojourn with a wood sculptor in Japan, living with his family at their humble abode, learning and absorbing his techniques.
Furthermore, Edith also reminisces on her intense relationship with Halit, a restaurant owner of Turkish origins, years later. As the deadly novavirus rears its ugly head, Halit and Edith hole up at Burntcoat to ride it out. This is a period filled with sex and passion as well as fear and uncertainty. Writing about sex is one of Sarah Hall’s strong points quite evident not only from her short stories (I am thinking about “Evie” from her collection Madame Zero), but also in this novel.
Upstairs I had other names, in your language, begging, sworn before climax. The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and dies, tucked together like pigeons on a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining.
The dominant themes prevalent in Burntcoat, then, are desire, death, illness and creation of art. Hall is great at capturing the terror of illness and its consequences – Edith’s mother suffering brain damage and its debilitating impact on the family unit, and then later when Edith has to assume the frightening role of sole caregiver when the virus penetrates the walls of Burntcoat. Through both these incidents, Hall explores the devastating loss of identity involved when afflicted with grave disease.
Even before symptoms truly arrived, there seemed to be profound change, in the way you moved, or sat – against the wall, staring down, your eyes dumbly asking for something that couldn’t be given. The process of illness is also the dissolution of the self.
Hall has also enticingly described Edith’s work as a sculptor, the creative process of wood sculpting and how Edith struggles with being an outsider in a vocation dominated by men, but where she eventually excels.
While the overall novel is very good, I did have some mixed feelings. First, a central premise was lacking; it seemed the novel was made up of three distinct parts and these parts did not always cohere. From the outset, one got the sense of a tenuous link between all these sections. Second, while I enjoyed the art section (I am partial to any writing on art and its creation), Hall delves into a failed relationship of Edith’s in that period, a story arc I felt to be a tad banal and not really contributing much to the overall narrative.
Third, the rendering of the pandemic on a broader scale somehow felt flat. Perhaps, after the horror and widespread devastation of Covid in reality, the depiction of the pandemic in fiction didn’t really come alive. Where Hall has done a brilliant job though is to portray the anxiety and fear at a personal level, particularly, when Edith is compelled to look after Halit with no outside help possible. These sections are some of the most intense in the book making it a compelling page turner.
There’s no good way to wait for disaster. Redundancy, a hurricane, surgery – the days, the hours before are already afflicted, emptied of true productivity and slippery with fear.
The real highlight of Burntcoat, though, is Sarah Hall’s writing. Her prose is raw, physical and sensual, her use of language striking, her way of expression quite beautiful and uniquely her own. It’s ultimately what makes the novel worth reading.