“Expect the unexpected” – Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

IMG_3Oct2021at182604A deadly virus, (inter)national lockdowns, catastrophic systemic failures of care: it’s easy enough to see what’s informed Sarah Hall’s latest novel. But, just as The Wolf Border was no simple vector for a rewilding argument, Burntcoat is neither a straight-up contemporary apocalypse novel nor a complaint against neoliberal mismanagement. In fact, while elements of both are present, the particulars of the setting are just that: setting. Burntcoat transcends the fictionalisation of SARS-CoV-2, to concentrate on the human lives that pre- and post-dated it.

The book opens decades after its pandemic has (mostly) petered out. Esther, our protagonist, is an artist: she makes large-scale public sculptures from fire-tempered wood, a technique she studied in Japan and finessed in her industrial studio in an unnamed northern UK city. As the book opens, she has realised that the virus, dormant within her for many years, has reawakened; she will, she knows, die. As she readies herself, she thinks back on her life: on her mother, a writer who suffered and survived a catastrophic brain haemorrhage and had to re-learn to live; on her years as an art student; on the defining love affair that coincided with the viral outbreak.

Any long-time Sarah Hall fans will know to expect the unexpected, but to expect, too, a particularly astute engagement with sensuality. In both Esther’s life and her art, physicality and embodied experience are high in the mix: Esther’s memories revolve around violence (illness and otherwise), sex and making, from the sensualism of food and perfume, to the effective monumentality of her pieces that themselves reference destruction, dis/trust and birth. Just as with the specificities of the Mardale floodings in Haweswater, the details of construction and installation here are compelling even without the context of the greater plot: Esther’s enormous Hecky, arising out of the gorse at the side of a motorway, might evoke Gormley’s Angel of the North in terms of the outlines of the commission, but the statue itself feels primevally real, while its femaleness asserts and inserts itself into the landscape of land-art and monumental artworks more broadly. In this, there’s echoes of the female reclamation of male space that we saw in The Carhullan Army; Esther’s experiences as a woman in art school, too, sketches out an unsurprising tableau of institutional machismo.

It’s in Esther’s love affair with Turkish chemist-turned-chef Halit that fans will most readily recognise Hall’s later style: the direct, almost brusque, but yet lyrically tender language in which she describes their mutual desire is more reminiscent of her short fiction than the earlier novels. This is a book constructed, too, of short paragraphs – dense explorations of need and loss and memory that segue quickly and naturally into the heat of love, the shock of illness, injury, disease, death. Hall eschews chapters for a stringing-together of impressions and consequence, so that Esther’s childhood melds into Halit’s memories of his time as a soldier, and her own career flows into and out of her mother’s. The actual plot – which centres mostly around what happens to Esther and Halit as they’re sequestered by a virus that echoes the administrative pattern of Covid but with a pathology that’s more like Ebola – is compelling, but it’s in how it’s told, Esther’s grappling with how to live, what to remember, how to die, that we find the true power of this book.

Any Cop?: Anything and everything Sarah Hall writes is worth a read, but this is a particularly heart-breaking extrapolation of our current world that, if there’s any justice, ought not to be swept under in the inevitable slew of Covid-novels to come.

Valerie O’Riordan

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