It is bold to write a fictional work about an ongoing disaster, even if some details have been changed
Edith Harkness, award-winning sculptor, now 60, is thinking about her greatest work to date: a national monument that she recently put the finishing touches to and that is soon to be erected on a hill.
“When things finally go up, there will be controversy,” Edith thinks. The culture minister who appointed him “will regret his decision. But I don’t have to worry about the fall-out. “
Burntcoat, which Sarah Hall began writing on the first day of the national lockdown last March, is set in the near future, a few years after a global pandemic hit the nation.
“Novavirus” is different from Covid-19 – symptoms include erupting wounds over the body, vomiting, and febrile delirium.
Even more terrifying, the cards of those who survived Nova are marked. They are “carriers” who sooner or later suffer fatal relapses. Edith is one of the damned.
The novel is written in the second person and addressed to Halit, a Turkish immigrant with whom Edith began a relationship before the pandemic.
She remembers seeing him for the first time in his restaurant: “You walked from the kitchen to our table and held a bowl so delicately in your hand that it could have been a nest … like a muscular, upright cat. ”
When the lockdown began, Halit moved into Burntcoat, Edith’s huge, “half-dilapidated” home overshadowed by “two centuries of decay and illegal use” that stands on the edge of the industrial district of the nameless town she lives in
Hall’s writing tends to operate in two extremes, the richly allusive and the grotesquely visceral, often in the same sentence.
She has written five acclaimed novels, but is perhaps better known for her short stories. At times, Burntcoat feels like a bunch of short stories, with a persistent, coherent narrative, generally eschewed in favor of episodic narratives, fleeting impressions, and vignettes, moving between different stages of Edith’s life.
She tells us about her difficult childhood when her mother suffered a stroke and permanent brain damage; of her father’s decision to leave his wife and child soon after; and of their bloom
artistic career and post-university stay in Japan.
There is, as one might expect in a novel about two new lovers, a lot of sex.
The writing is strangely uneven: some things are cheesy (“I was full of fireworks”; “If we went deep enough into each other, there would be a hiding place”), but some things are somehow wonderfully graphic that resembles Hall’s descriptions of diseases later in the novel.
Perhaps there is something similar, thinks Hall, with the ferocity of love and the ferocity of disease.
“In order to survive the disease, you had to be in such a strong and fast current,” says Edith, when the virus infiltrated her home, “the landscape blurred, became unrecognizable”.
It is a bold thing to write a literary fiction about an ongoing catastrophe even when some details have been changed.
It is something that Ali Smith in her S. accomplished with great applauseseasonal quartet, which related events from Brexit to the migration of migrants.
The questions that concern Edith about her sculptures also seem to concern Hall.
“Do stories make sense in a disordered world?” Edith asks early in the novel. Burntcoat is a compelling novel that attempts admirably, sometimes brilliantly, to answer that question.