I was blown away by Sarah Hall’s short story collection ‘Sudden traveller’ when I read it last year. Her writing is bold, rich, poetic, full of striking imagery and emotional wisdom, and the stories and her prose left a lasting impression on me. So I was keen to see what she would achieve in her new novel.
‘Burntcoat’ is a pandemic tale, set in the midst of a deadly virus whose symptoms may differ from Covid-19, but the social effects are relatable – isolation, fear, hardship, and protracted miserable death. It’s short, but an intense and brutal read. The text is laden with physical and emotional horror, and awash with every bodily fluid imaginable. The narrator’s mother suffers a stroke early on, changing her into another woman altogether. A traumatic childhood with her brain-damaged mother, after her father is unable to cope and abandons them, is followed by an abusive relationship at university and a disastrous pregnancy, all rendered in viscerally appalling detail. It’s a novel about survival, about care, about how we cope with physical, emotional and social extremes, and the meaning of art and creation within that.
Salvation comes in the form of a successful artistic career and the love of a Turkish hunk, also damaged physically and mentally from military service. These two lost survivors find themselves locked in together when the pandemic strikes, and quarantine becomes a loving cocoon of learning about each other and themselves. (There’s a lot of shagging – skimmed, sorry but hetero sex yawn.) The art backdrop really held my interest in this section. Edith, the narrator, specialises in huge sculptures, landmarks, working with wood and metal and a technique learned in Japan of carefully burning wood so that only its structural essence remains, which is then polished to a finish that shows all its detail. The metaphor is apt for the purging emotional fires she’s been through, The peace and order of her time in Japan also contrast with the chaos and violence of pandemic England, while on a societal level the virus clears away the superficial and unnecessary to reveal and capture what is essential to survival.
‘Burntcoat’ is a tale of damaged bodies and minds, creativity, survival, gendered roles, love, and death. It succeeds and excels on all those issues. According to the author, she started writing this novel on the first day of UK lockdown, with no knowledge of how things would pan out, and only a ‘What if’ story in mind. The horror that permeates the story so urgently needed to be captured, because we’re already in danger of forgetting.
Advance review copy courtesy of netgalley.co.uk