If the first page of a novel should encapsulate the book as a whole, then Burntcoat manages to go one further, achieving this with its short and startling opening line: “Those who tell stories survive.” What follows is a feverish, beautifully observed novel about sickness, love and loss.
Sarah Hall began writing Burntcoat on the first day of lockdown in March 2020, imagining herself as a kind of first responder in her capacity as a writer, trying to document a world that was suddenly, as she puts it, “eerily shrouded and in jeopardy”. The result is a deeply unsettling and empathetic read.
The English author holds a black mirror up to the pandemic with her fictional “Nova” virus. The world of Burntcoat is alarmingly familiar – countries shutting down, people locked away, mounting cases, deaths, strain on health services, civil unrest – but this virus is more lethal, with people left to fend for themselves. It makes one think of the worst stories of the pandemic, the countries that were hardest hit, the fear and despair of the people who died in untended hospital beds, the trauma of those who survive them.
Burntcoat is narrated by Edith Harkness, a celebrated sculptor who has retreated to her titular homestead to wait out the pandemic with her new lover, Halit, an immigrant from eastern Europe who runs a restaurant in town. We know from early on that the couple eventually contract the virus. Edith tells her story to a mourned "you". She herself is only in temporary remission: "For the million who had died, and, he did not say it directly, those who still would". It is a terrifying twist on reality, the idea that the virus will reawaken in the bodies of survivors.
Hall starts with familiar details: “A picture of the pathogen – orange and reticulated – has become as recognisable as the moon … The nurse standing in the empty aisle, her back to us, hair dishevelled and her uniform crumpled, the weight of the shopping basket, though it is empty, pulling her body downwards.”
But the virus, when it comes, differs from reality, beginning with “infant sores, fever blisters”, and developing in visceral scenes as Edith tries to care for Halit, knowing that she herself will soon succumb: “There was nothing I could do but watch you burn, listen to you mumbling and shouting out. I washed the sheets and hung them in the yard, indelible stains left in the fibres.”
If Will Burns's recent novel The Paper Lantern offered a reflective view of the pandemic, this is the opposite, a pacy, furious book that seeks to galvanise
Burntcoat is both a marker and reminder of the brutality of a virus that has claimed millions of lives across the world, and the Booker-nominated Hall is the right author for the job. Known for her searing, highly crafted writing that often incorporates elements of gothic and the surreal, her skilful blend of reality and fiction in this new book makes for an intense read.
If Will Burns’s recent novel The Paper Lantern offered a reflective view of the pandemic, this is the opposite, a pacy, furious book that seeks to galvanise. It is an interesting addition to a back catalogue that includes five novels and three short story collections, among them The Beautiful Indifference, which won the Edge Hill and Portico prizes; Madame Zero, winner of the East Anglian Book Award; and Sudden Traveller, shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction.
In Burntcoat, Hall covers a remarkable amount of ground. The virus is just one focus of a book with many facets: a mother-daughter relationship utterly changed by illness, the thrilling beginnings of a new relationship, the difficulties in creating art in a capitalist society, the need for global change, for the world to stop yearning for more and to instead try and save what it has.
There are stints in Japan as Edith travels for her studies, scenes with a controlling, jealous ex-boyfriend, and brilliant passages on intimacy and sex, which will come as no surprise to fans of Hall's work: "The astonishing speed of desire. Construction of bones. Volumes of the body. Scent. This is how it begins, with physical intuition … The shock of another human nearby when one expects to be alone. The strangeness of a shirtless back, that plate of muscle from spine to shoulder that seems wrongly wingless."
At times the narrative whirls and jumps about – the scenes in Japan take place after the relationship with the ex but come first in the narrative – but it is a small matter and presumably deliberate in a book that is frenzied from start to finish.
That is not to say that clarity of insight is missing. Hall can deliver a blow in a simple, devastating sentence, such as Edith’s comment on the millions of people let down by the government: “Lives fell below the line.” Burntcoat is a book full of wisdom about the crisis of our times.