I have read a few of Sarah Hall’s previous books, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. When I learnt that Burntcoat was being released, I did not even read the blurb before requesting a copy from my local library. Hall is one of those authors whom I trust to deliver something engaging and thought-provoking. I am pleased to reveal that this novel did not disappoint in this regard. Other reviewers agree; Sarah Perry declares Burntcoat ‘extraordinary’, and Sarah Moss calls it ‘dark and brilliant’.
When we first meet her, 59-year-old Edith Harkness is ‘making her final preparations’, as she is aware that ‘her life will draw to end in the coming days.’ As well as dealing with her own, unnamed terminal illness, Edith is faced with a lockdown due to a rampaging virus, and the loss of her lover, Halit.
Edith has made the decision to leave medical supervision. She tells us, early on: ‘I should call the medical centre, but I haven’t been there in years – I was sick of the tests and the questions, so many vials of blood…’. Of her disease, she says: ‘I have no real interest any more, not in the thing itself. Its composition. Its character. Is it alive or dead? We are not separate; I continue, it continues. I admire its cleverness, and patience, storing away fragments in my cells, confounding biologists and immunologists. I’ve grown tired of waiting. I’ve told myself I would not wait, not try to own it.’
Burntcoat is the place where celebrated sculptor Edith both lives, and has her working studio, which is ‘glowing with memories and desire’. Burntcoat, she goes on to say, ‘stands at the edge of the old industrial part of the city, where the riverbank links workers’ cottages, trade buildings and docks. Friends with houses in the Victorian wards thought I was mad to want to live here, until I explained how much space I needed.’
Throughout, we are privy to Edith’s first person perspective. For the majority, she addresses her speech to Halit, and recalls portions of their relationship with one another. When they first meet, she captures the following: ‘There was a lithe grace to the way you moved, like a muscled, upright cat. The blue of your eyes glinted, seemed deposited, as if there was a greater mass of colour behind. I stared at you through your series of questions.’ Meeting Halit, the owner of a local restaurant, just before the first lockdown was announced, awakened her: ‘I felt myself rise, as if from the undergrowth, like a creature standing stark against the landscape.’
At first, Edith keeps herself apart from the pandemic. When Halit moves in, quite soon after the pair first meet, she narrates: ‘We slept as the flames settled and died, tucked together like pigeons in a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining.’ Their relationship unfolds as the pandemic begins to close in.
Whilst detailing her traumatic present, she also takes us back in time to a highly damaging event which set a lot of difficult things in motion. When Edith was just eight, doctors discovered that her mother had a brain tumour. She was operated on to remove the immediate threat, but this caused her essence to disappear. First, she tells us: ‘When I was eight, my mother died and Naomi arrived’, and then goes on to say: ‘Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, automatically, 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.’ What follows is what Edith aptly describes as ‘absurd theatre’; her mother has lost all ability to enact the processes which many of us do automatically. She describes Naomi ‘mixing up words, breaking things, wetting herself’. There are ‘house fires, overflowing baths, fish tucked into sock drawers.’
Burntcoat is built from a series of short vignettes, a technique which I find really effective in fiction. This allows Hall to simultaneously deal with Edith’s past and present, and also to offer some conclusions, in part, to the pandemic which rages through her novel.
As is true with all of Hall’s books, there is such an attention to detail in Burntcoat. I loved the way in which everything was presented through the eyes of an artist; this is a real strength in Hall’s fiction. The way in which she presents Edith’s craft, and her processes, is often stunning. Of one sculpture: ‘I know it. She is the masterwork. A half-burnt assemblage lofting high as a church tower, containing all the unrealistic belligerence and boldness of early ambition. The upper flanks of beech were steamed pink, bent and heaped to extraordinary angles, the lower trellis strengthened by charring. She rises above the yellow furze as if from a pyre, hair streaming on the updraft, her back arcing.’
I found Edith a fascinating narrator, and loved the way in which her narrative was controlled; it felt throughout as though she was physically holding important things back. Hall has the ability to capture a great deal about her and Halit’s relationship in just a couple of sentences; for example: ‘We were the only ones there, and our solitude seemed important. The world was suspended. When the bar shut we walked along the icing river, our breath like smoke.’ Hall’s portrait of Edith is revealing, and reaches immense depth.
Another element of Hall’s work which I admire is the way in which she is keen to present the darker, gritty side of life. She does this particularly well when writing about places; for instance: ‘… I settled at the region’s edge, where the landscape opens into sky, and there are people, trains to the capital, a different kind of absentia. I’ve come to love the middle-place, the derricks and drowned roots, hidden culverts, algae-stained boats and the river’s chandlery.’
Whilst Burntcoat does not take Covid-19 as its virus of choice, I feel rather uncomfortable reading books set during pandemics – for good reason, I believe. A lot of contemporary authors do seem to be turning towards this situation for inspiration, so I suppose that I might get used to it in time. Hall presents the Nova pandemic of her imagination with both fear and clarity, and with many statements which could be applied to our real world: ‘Now. We are afraid. Now. We are suffering. Now. Our devastation begins.’
Due to the many dark themes which it encompasses, Burntcoat might be a difficult book for many readers to approach. The decline of loved ones is presented throughout, alongside a devastating pandemic, which a vast number of us are turning to fiction to avoid. Whilst I think Burntcoat is a quite excellent novel, I did find sections of it draining to read, and I therefore did not finish it as quickly as I expected to. If you are in the mood for a work of darker fiction, I would look no further than this novel. Hall does everything with such mastery in Burntcoat, and I very much look forward in future months to prioritising some of her earlier works which I’ve not yet read.