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.