At the start of Sarah Hall’s sixth novel, Burntcoat, the celebrated British sculptor Edith Harkness is struggling. First, with the staggering burden of her latest — and last ever — commission, a national memorial to honour the million people who were lost to the Nova or AG3 Virus; second, from the relapse of viral symptoms she is experiencing — symptoms from which, it seems, she will probably die.
Art as a form of a survival; the resilience of the human spirit in the wake of the body’s devastation — these are the questions that animate Hall’s slim but staggering book.
Written in brief, individuated paragraphs, Burntcoat draws on Hall’s immense skill as a short story writer (during the Covid-19 pandemic, she became the first ever writer to win the BBC National Short Story Award for a second time).
While Edith’s health deteriorates, her mind reels back through vignettes from her life. This includes scenes from her unconventional childhood, raised by her writer mother Naomi who suffered a catastrophic brain injury when Edith was only eight.
This also includes moments from her more recent love affair with Halit, a Turkish man she met shortly before the virus brought its own catastrophe, and with whom Edith ultimately chose to quarantine.
As well as her novels and short stories, in 2016 Hall edited a collection entitled Sex & Death, and there is certainly an abundance of both to be found in Burntcoat. Edith’s lust for Halit is instant, primal — “I felt myself rise, as if from the undergrowth, like a creature standing stark against the landscape.”
This soon gives way to weeks of non-stop love-making, a cacophony of bodily fluids and carnal desires which Hall conjures with intoxicating, unflinching precision.
The urgency of their romance is heightened by the deteriorating public health situation: “Outside, the danger, the fear, made what was happening inside purer. The fucking of innocent Gods.”
Eventually the language of passion and pandemic blends into one: “The weeks we were together, entering the bloodstream of love, it was travelling unstoppably, like its predecessors, its sequence long and patient, transmitted by touch, fluids, breath.”
Of course, for many, the concept of a ‘pandemic novel’ might sound alarm bells — we are only just, tentatively, emerging from this nightmare, why would we choose to plunge back in again via fiction?
I confess to feeling something similar, however Hall is one of the few authors on whose every word I hang (another is Sarah Moss who, as it happens, also has a ‘pandemic novel’ coming up next month, and whose short, atmospheric book Ghost Wall I thought of often whilst reading Burntcoat).
It is also worth saying that this is very much not a book about Covid — the devastation wreaked by Hall’s virus is even more extreme; the streets are deserted but for army tanks; in the UK alone, there are over a million deaths; to avoid contamination, the bodies must be burnt not buried, such that “crematoriums and hospital incinerators ran every hour of the day”.
This stark, smoking image recalls the Japanese wood-burning techniques known as shou sugi ban, which Edith learned early on in her career. During a residency just outside Kyoto, an artist named Shun taught her how to work with the flames; how to damage the material just enough to strengthen it; how to charr it with “patterns so suggestive they became stories”. Edith used these skills to devise her “masterwork”, the Scotch Corner Witch, an award-winning public sculpture that launched her international reputation. Given its epic scale and controversial motorway-side location, the Witch gives more than a subtle nod to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North; however, instead of a towering steel man, Hall offers us a woman, glorious and grotesque in her blackened skirts, a symbol of the artist herself, defiant in the face of so much pain.
Hall has written about artists before – both in her 2009 novel How to Paint a Dead Man and her Booker-shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo. She has also written about a near-dystopian Britain (The Carhullan Army) and a brilliant woman living alone in a remote landscape, eschewing a traditional lifestyle to pursue her passion (The Wolf Border). In many ways, therefore, Burntcoat feels like a culmination of Hall’s work and, in my opinion, it is her finest yet. Apparently she began writing it on the first day of the Covid-19 pandemic, so in some ways it serves as a kind of a memorial in and of itself.
“The world doesn’t come back as it was before.” It will take years to fully process the impact of the last 18 months; in the meantime, this staggering novel can be read in a matter of hours. It is an exquisite account of sexual intimacy, of maternal love, of our terrifying capacity for survival and our commitment to creating beauty out of the darkness.
Fiction: Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 224 pages, hardcover, €18.20; e-book £10.04