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Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

A Helen’s Reads Review *****


In the bedroom above her immense studio at Burntcoat, the celebrated sculptor Edith Harkness is making her final preparations. The symptoms are well known: her life will draw to an end in the coming days. Downstairs, the studio is a crucible glowing with memories and desire. It was here, when the first lockdown came, that she brought Halit. The lover she barely knew. A presence from another culture. A doorway into a new and feverish world.

This relatively short novel is literally packed with emotional punch, power and intensity. It is a personal account of Edith’s life and career but told in an elliptical, non-linear way, the narrative interwoven and interspersed cutting between major episodes and events:

her unconventional childhood in a remote, Cumbrian cottage with a single-parent mother, Naomi, who quite literally has to rebuild her life and her brain after she suffered a catastrophic life-changing and personality-destroying aneurysm (her husband left not long after, unable to cope);

her development as a sculptor from her first attempt in the cottage garden, to award winning controversial large-scale public art installations using the Japanese wood burning technique of Shou Sugi Ban;

her acquisition of the derelict Burntcoat and its transformation into a purpose-built studio with apartment above, where she and her new lover Halit retreat to self-isolate as the AG3 novavirus pandemic hits;

and later, Edith’s completion of a memorial sculpture to the dead of the pandemic and her end-of-life preparations as the dormant virus in her own body resurfaces.

This is powerful, strong stuff, and any potential reader needs to be aware of the novel’s frank, graphic and vivid descriptions of illness, and especially sex, which seems to represent the life force in the face of death as the pandemic rages. There is a very obvious physicality within the novel, whether it is sex, or landscape or natural surroundings, all of which reflect Edith’s career and terms of reference.

I don’t think Burntcoat is intended primarily as a pandemic novel – it may feature one and was written during one, but it is a novel not a documentary. The novavirus is only one means of several which Sarah Hall uses to explore the themes of trauma and loss and resilience. One thing that really stood out for me was how damage is depicted as leading to strength, as we see with the Shou Sugi Ban art technique she uses, or how her mother becomes a really strong woman after such a catastrophic brain bleed, or how Burntcoat rises like a phoenix from a history of neglect and dilapidation.

Burntcoat is undeniably dark, intense and unsettling, but it is also incredibly good, utterly compelling and completely gripping. The writing is superb, with stunning, poetic imagery. As Damon Galgut wrote: “Sarah Hall makes language shimmer and burn”.

This is a short novel which covers many important themes and leaves you much to think about. It haunts your brain for days after finishing it. Yet another outstanding and brilliant work by Sarah Hall who is one of our finest contemporary women writers.

Available at Books Cumbria