Burntcoat by Sarah Hall: ‘Those who tell stories survive’

Cover image for Burntcoat by Sarah HallI swore I wouldn’t read a pandemic novel then ended up reading two before the summer was out. Hard to resist when one of them was Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat which neatly steers clear of our own pandemic, telling the story of Edith who survives the novavirus but knows that her time is limited. As all the symptoms of the inevitable relapse emerge, Edith contemplates her life and the loss of her lover just as they were beginning to explore a life together.

Perhaps Naomi was saying that life is only an invention, a version necessary for us to accept living

Edith is a sculptor, constructing monumental pieces in wood cured by a Japanese technique she learnt not long after graduation. Success came early, her work is well known, but her childhood was difficult, living with a mother whose devastating cerebral hemorrhage left her fundamentally altered. When Edith’s father left them, she became her mother’s interpreter for the world. As the pandemic hits, Edith is in the first throes of a relationship with Halit who moves into the flat in Burntcoat, a warehouse she’s converted to house her workspace. The country is locked down but Edith and Halit are at that stage of a relationship when they are oblivious to the world only venturing out for food. When supplies run low, Halit returns from a foray to his restaurant badly beaten and infected by a mob intent on looting. What follows is inevitable. Years later, as her symptoms reassert themselves, Edith sets about assembling the national memorial piece she’s been commissioned to deliver, remembering a life that she had not expected to last so long.

No generation expects its crisis, the hole that opens at the centre, dragging everything in  

Bit of a dull synopsis for this extraordinary book which manages to be both restrained and lyrical in its prose. Hall tells Edith’s story in a long series of short paragraphs, often completing them with an image or an idea which stopped me in my tracks. Her writing is subtle, richly textured, requiring time to give it the full attention it needs and to savour its beauty. Edith’s pandemic is not ours, if anything it’s more severe with the inevitability of Nova’s recurrence once caught, but many of her concerns are ours, if more extreme, and her world feels sadly familiar.  Hall is quoted in the book’s press release as feeling impelled to write this novel as soon as lockdown bit, needing to tell its story. Like her creator, Edith is also driven by stories, telling her own and Halit’s in the memorial piece that will be her last. It’s a theme, amongst many others, that runs through this slim novel, right from its first sentence. This is my first Hall (yes, I know). I found it powerful, moving and oddly comforting. And if you’re wondering about that second pandemic novel. It’s Sarah Moss’ The Fell, more lockdown than pandemic – review to follow next month.

Faber & Faber: London 9780571329311 224 pages Hardback

18 thoughts on “Burntcoat by Sarah Hall: ‘Those who tell stories survive’”

  1. This one fell into the admired-but-not-enjoyed camp for me, but I was able to pull out enough from it to review it for pay for an American newsletter. That first sentence is the key, isn’t it? I quoted it in my review. (I’ll sound like a prude if I say it, but the constant gratuitous s*x was one of my issues.)

          1. I read a novella about ebola not long ago, which was sobering, but haven’t read any of the latest pandemic novels. The Fell which you reviewed the other day sounded much more up my street. This does sound fascinating too though.

  2. I really don’t think I could read this right now! It does sound excellent though. I’ve not always got on with Hall in the past but I’ll definitely give this a try when I feel able to read a pandemic novel.

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