Book review: Burntcoat, by Sarah Hall
In due course there will be a plague of pandemic novels. In fact, there always has been. Some are oddly prescient, like Ewan Morrison’s surprising and poignant novel How to Survive Everything, which was more about survivors with a virus, or the idea of it, in the background. In terms of serious literary talent, we now have Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat, a novel starring a ‘novavirus’ but also so much more. It’s a heart-wrenching read, and so much the better for that. The characters are so skillfully produced, in all their ambiguities, that the catastrophe is truly significant. The narrator, a renowned sculptor called Edith Harkness, was commissioned to create a piece as a national memorial to those who died during this iteration of infection. But it’s in the future at the very beginning of the novel. In his past, no one knows what is coming.
Hall deploys an efficient nervous jump-kick in the passage of time. The opening line is “those who tell stories survive,” a phrase from Edith’s mother, Naomi, with Edith wondering if she really meant that, or if it was a confused memory of “those who survive tell stories”. On page two, after this memory, we are in “today” and Edith is 59 years old, which is old for the “carriers”. But the tale then swirls between childhood, becoming an art school student, and both a disastrous relationship and learning non-female skills in metalworking and blacksmithing, to a scholarship to study with a Japanese sculptor. who works with burnt wood, to an unexpected romance with a Turkish man called Halit. Then the virus sneaks in and sneaks into the procedure. Beside that, we have Edith’s contemporary retrospection on what the virus meant.
In most critics’ comparison tote is Angela Carter. It may have been used here (art, mutilated language, mothers, Japan, body, libido, impending horror) but Hall quietly dismisses the idea. Naomi had been a novelist before a brain hemorrhage that scrambled her synapses. She manages to write a final work, The Reddening, and is greeted posthumously. “They re-evaluated his handwriting,” her daughter tells us, “the gothic label has peeled off like cheap varnish. Karolina once told me that the term is used for women whose establishment appreciates the work but does not respect it ”. I can imagine authors Sarah Perry, Jenni Fagan, Jessie Burton, Susanna Clarke and Eowyn Ivey (and many more) joining in a round of applause.
So what other writers could give us a guide to Hall’s work? Once the relationship with the virus and Halit begins, Edith says he “laughs again, shocked at the frankness and caught between discomfort and pleasure” when discussing pornography. The book is straightforward and dealt with both menstruation and copulation. He seems rather the descendant of writers like Anaïs Nin and Georges Bataille in his yoke of the erotic and the violent, the morbid and the sublime. But: both prudish and trigger warning, it’s really blunt. That the body is a source of joy and a site of decomposition is an integral part of the meaning of the novel. You might want to close your eyes to the sex scenes, but you’ll definitely want to do so when the descriptions of necrosis and suffering appear.
Cleverly, the action takes place in a slightly off-beat version of reality. This is not a documentary, but a novel. When the Prime Minister addresses the nation, “it looked leaner, grayer; in a few weeks, a private beautician had bleached her hair ”. Rather, I like that the current holder of this office is denied a place in the fictional stories. But there are enough pointers that every reader will remember that tie the story to what happened; storage, blockages, latent tensions turning into outbursts of anger, the military being used to shore up a crumbling health service to make it – a horrible word – relatable. This is a novel with a “Welsh doctor who cut off the bottom of a large water cooler and placed it on his head like a mask … he would be among the first medical personnel to die” .
Personally, I found one of the most admirable things about Burntcoat, the almost metaphysical thoughts on the virus. There is a dismayed admiration for its adaptability, how it is “perfectly composed, starlike and programmed for the greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, for replication, for the creation of galaxies of itself.” It’s a book with deep tenderness for how we care for those who approach the unknown, and with calm anger at how “our substance is still the same; even with enhancers. . We are our worst tendencies. We remain in our distribution “. This applies in particular to the parallelism between Naomi’s State and dealing with the effects of the virus.It’s not like suffering is something new in the universe.
“This is not the story. It was never history, ”Edith thinks. Hall embraces the idea of the pandemic as an arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. There will be more attempts to figure out The Curious Years, but Hall has set the bar higher, and few will be as finely crafted, intellectually brave, and emotionally honest as this one.
Burnt coat, through Sarah Hall, Faber & Faber, £ 12.99
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