Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Written during the early feverish months of the first wave of COVID-19, Burntcoat is a haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. I’ve long been a fan of Hall’s short stories, ever since The Beautiful Indifference came out ten years or so ago, but this is my first experience of her novels – an overwhelmingly positive one, I should clearly state upfront. 

When we first meet Edith Harkness – the critically acclaimed installation artist who narrates the novel – her life is drawing to a close. At fifty-nine, Edith is living alone at Burntcoat, her warehouse-sized studio-cum-apartment, purchased several years earlier with the proceeds from a prestigious prize. The reason for her impending death is Nova (aka AG3) – a more severe virus than COVID but similar in many ways, primed to unleash the maximum devastation, destroying the body from within. 

It was – it is – perfect. Perfectly composed, star-like, and timed for the greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, replication, creating galaxies of itself. Perfectly operating in each victim – the patient incubation, methodical progression through the body, careful removal of the defensive sheath. It ascends, hellishly, erupting inside its host. A fever that becomes critical, so destructive the body might kill itself. The virus dies with the host or survives, retreating deep into the cells, lying dormant. (p. 126)

Edith caught Nova from her Turkish lover, Halit, several years ago, back when the virus was first circulating, before the availability of vaccines or ground-breaking treatments. Twenty or thirty years on, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who escaped the virus and now have some protection through vaccination; and those who were infected and survived. Unfortunately for the latter group, the virus remains dormant in the body, awaiting the inevitable reactivation that can come at any time. Consequently, the pandemic looms large for Edith in more ways than one. Not only is Edith a carrier, she is also finalising a national memorial for the dead, an installation set to endure long after her death.

As her relapse progresses, Edith reflects on different aspects of her life, memories spanning her childhood on the margins, the route to becoming an artist, and her relationship with Halit – an experience she describes with an electrifying sense of intimacy. The novel is presented in sections, almost like a series of extended vignettes, a structure that gives it a wonderful sense of fluidity as we move backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various elements of Edith’s richly-textured life.

Hall writes movingly of Edith’s childhood, an upbringing undoubtedly shaped by severe illness and trauma. When Edith was aged eight, her mother, Naomi, suffered a brain haemorrhage – an incident Edith witnessed during an outing with her parents. Somehow Naomi survived the bleed, ultimately recovering physically by learning how to function again, slowly and steadily with the help of her family. Nevertheless, something inherent to Naomi was displaced during the stroke, rupturing her sense of self and deep-rooted psyche.

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. (p. 13)

When her parents’ marriage deteriorates in the year following her haemorrhage, Edith is left alone to care for Naomi in the absence of her father.

We also learn of Edith’s training as an artist, a process which takes her to Japan to learn the highly skilled process of ‘shou sugi ban’, a technique for charring cedar, rendering it waterproof. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, burning the wood in this way actually strengthens its structure, ‘preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty’ – a phrase that could apply to Hall’s creative work itself.

Also of broader significance is Edith’s most famous installation, ‘The Witch at Scotch Corner’, an enormous Angel-of-the-North type structure, also known as ‘Hecky’. It’s a nod to the days of major investment in the arts – the commissioning of ‘a statement piece by a radical new artist’, supported by a wealthy patron with the requisite political clout. Edith delivers on the brief with an impressive combination of vision and ambition. As a result, her radical artwork – a gigantic squatting woman – duly takes up its position by the Scotch Corner junction, the gateway to the North East.

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 planks of beech were steamed pink, bent and hooped 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. Welcome North. (p. 79)

It’s a wildly controversial piece, simultaneously attracting fulsome praise and reactionary outrage – a point that Hall, to her credit, never labours or overplays.

The most powerful sections of the novel are those featuring Halit, whom Edith starts seeing in the months leading up to lockdown. There’s a breathtaking feeling of intimacy to these passages, which Hall expresses in the second person – a viewpoint that enhances the sense of closeness between the couple, both physically and sexually.

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 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. (p. 57)

Hall is well known for writing about sex in a way that feels both poetic and visceral, capturing the physicality of the act without losing the emotional depth. These passages are sensual and intense without ever feeling gratuitous – a testament to Hall’s finely-turned judgement as an artist and a writer. The prose is utterly sublime throughout – graceful and elegant in tone, almost meditative at times, especially when conveying the intimacy between the two lovers. The portrayal of their relationship is beautifully judged.

In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death. There is a deep sense of poignancy to the novel, a quality that stems from our understanding that Edith is facing her own mortality – she knows the resurgence will prove fatal this time as others have already succumbed. (At nearly sixty, Edith is old for a carrier, and her time is almost up.) As such, the novel explores some weighty existential themes. Namely, how do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective.

In short, this is a multi-layered novel with so much to offer – a moving elegy to love, life, loss and creativity that acts as a testament to humanity’s resilience in the face of deep uncertainty. Definitely one of the best and most thought-provoking novels I’ve read this year.

Burntcoat is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

33 thoughts on “Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, if it’s any comfort, I had no intention of reading a pandemic novel either, but the scope of this one really appealed to me. (Plus, it’s Sarah Hall, whose short stories I adore.) While Edith’s impending death clearly sets the tone from the outset, there’s more than enough going on elsewhere to prevent it from being a ‘straight’ pandemic novel. And the fact that it’s not Covid but another (albeit more deadly) virus distances it from our own experiences of the recent pandemic, to a certain extent at least. Sarah Moss’ novel, The Fell, sounds much closer to the reality of the last two years, to the point where I don’t think I could read it right now!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        I think the labelling of this book as a pandemic novel does it something of a disservice as it’s so much broader than that description suggests. Sure, it’s an integral part of the backdrop to Edith’s story but by no means the only significant factor. I’m so glad I picked this one up!

        Reply
  1. gertloveday

    I am blown away by your description of this author’s writing. I don’t know her work at all but see she has been long listed for the Booker on two occasions. I MUST read The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man before I read this. Right to the top of the list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s amazing, probably the best writer of short stories in Britain today. Her stories have scooped the BBC’s National Short Story Prize a number of times in the past 10-15 years – three times, I think, which is a record for any one writer. Oddly enough, this is my first experience of her novels, but I definitely want to go back and look into a few of her previous books. A writer friend loves The Electric Michelangelo, and while the premise doesn’t appeal to me as much as some of her others, I think you’ll be on very safe ground with it!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I swore I would steer well clear of pandemic novels but made exceptions for both this and The Fell. The writing is extraordinarily beautiful, isn’t it, both vibrant and poignant, as you say. One of my books of 2021. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely gorgeous. I could have followed her anywhere with writing as good as this. The Fell didn’t particularly appeal to me after the slight disappointment of Summerwater, but the Hall I loved unreservedly. A richly-textured book.

      Reply
  3. Cathy746books

    I’ve been wanting to read this all year, but my mixed reaction to The Fell by Sarah Moss made me think it might be too soon for a pandemic related book. This does sound great though Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was just saying to Susan that The Fell didn’t particularly appeal to me, partly due to the slight disappointment of Summerwater compared to Moss’ previous novella, Ghost Wall. Luckily, there’s a lot more to Burntcoat than the pandemic, and I think this wider scope helps to sets it apart from other related novels. Definitely a book I would recommend to you, Cathy.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’ll be interesting to see what you think of The Wolf Border. I remember seeing some mixed feedback on it at the time of its release, but then again, the same thing happened with Burncoat, so we’ll see…

          Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. Those are really evocative quotes, and I must admit to feeling quite drawn to the book. I thought I was a bit against the idea of pandemic related fiction – too soon, too soon! – but i’ve encountered short stories and non-fiction which have touched on it and have actually found it not to be a problem. So I won’t rule this out!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I don’t if you’ve ever read anything by Sarah Hall, but if not, and you were minded to give her a try, then the short stories might be your best bet. She’s arguably the best writer of short stories working in Britain today, so definitely worth considering at some point. As you know, I’m very picky about which contemporary authors I choose to read these days, but Hall is the real deal. She’s also just made an excellent Radio 4 programme marking the 25th Anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer, a fantastic listen if you’re a Radiohead fan!

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    Beautiful review, Jacqui! I absolutely agree with you about her short stories and in one those wonderful bits of bookish serendipity, I’ve just started reading another one of her books. This book is on my TBR partly because of the author and partly because I have a thing for novels about artists.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant! I’m curious to hear more about the one you’re reading at the moment, so I’ll definitely keep an eye on your reviews. Fingers crossed you’ll like it… :)

      Reply
  6. Lisa Guidarini

    Brilliant review! I sat through lockdown wondering how many writers were using their craft as a means to deal with the horror of it. I may be ready to take a look at some of these books. I know some writers stopped in their tracks and I followed a few on Twitter. Either reaction is understandable: producing art because you can’t sit still or throwing your hands up in despair. I’m collecting titles of novels written around Covid and you’ve convinced me this one’s a great addition!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lisa! I read somewhere that Hall started writing this book on the very first day of our initial COVID lockdown, mostly because she felt she had to do *something*. As you say, it was a way of channelling all the emotions many of us were feeling — fear, anxiety, uncertainty, feverish catastrophising — into something productive. I wouldn’t normally be drawn to pandemic-related novels, but Hall is such a brilliant writer that in this instance I had to make an exception.

      Reply
  7. BookerTalk

    I’ve been wondering whether this would be one for me. Like some of your other contributors here I was reluctant to embark on a pandemic themed novel when the current one is still raw in my memory. But you’ve convinced me this is far more than a pandemic novel and the extracts are enticing so onto the wishlist it goes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent. I’m glad to hear you’re considering giving it a try. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be enthusing about a novel set in the aftermath of a deadly virus, I would have dismissed them in the gentlest possible way! Then again, the wider scope of Burntcoat helps to set it apart from say The Fell or other COVID-centric fiction.

      Reply
  8. heavenali

    Such a beautiful review, Hall’s prose does sound gorgeous. I have read two or three of Sarah Hall’s previous novels, though that was some years ago now. I didn’t think I wanted to read any pandemic novels, however I have The Fell tbr, and this sounds like one I might like in the fullness of time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I love Hall’s prose style, so the quality of the writing was a big part of the draw for me with this one. Plus, the premise sounded intriguing and felt suitably distanced from our own pandemic to enable me to separate the two in my mind (if that makes sense). She also writes so well about art, creativity and different forms of expression, particularly in times of crisis or major upheaval – something that adds another layer or two to the book.

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    This sounds like such an amazing book, it’s not one for me at the moment as I don’t have the resilience for it, but it’s one I will recommend to people, more so since reading this review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great – thanks Liz. I often feel the same when I read other bloggers’ reviews…’hmm, maybe not for me personally, but definitely something I would recommend to others’. We can’t expect everyone to be drawn to the books we love or feel passionate about – life would be very odd if we all liked the same things!

      Reply
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  11. 1streading

    I was actually meant to hear Sarah Hall talking about this but it was cancelled. I think I would have benefitted from it as I found the novel rather difficult to pin down – as if it kept changing shape! I loved the parts about art but less those about love. Maybe reading it during the pandemic wasn’t such a great idea!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oddly enough, I loved the shape-shifting aspect of it, to the point where I wondered whether the various threads might have started off as short stories in their own right. In the end though, I felt they were sufficiently connected to form a novel, albeit one with a number of different interconnected facets.

      Resilience seems to be a key unifying theme here – so we have Naomi’s resilience in coping with her stroke (and Edith’s in looking after her); then there’s the fact that Edith has been living with Novo lying dormant in her body for several years, which demonstrates another kind of strength or resilience; and there’s the wood burning technique she learns in Japan, the way the wood is charred to strengthen it, which sounds counterintuitive in theory but works beautifully in practice. Maybe there’s something about the intensity of Edith’s relationship with Halit too, the way she cares for him during his illness even though her own life could be at risk?

      Anyway, a very intriguing book from one of our best living writers – as you say, an interview with Hall would have been very enlightening!

      Reply

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