Review: Burntcoat - Sarah Hall
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Faber&Faber, October 2021
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“I’m the wood in the fire. I’ve experienced, altered in nature. I am burnt, damaged, more resilient. A life is a bead of water on the black surface, so frail, so strong, its world incredibly held.”
Burntcoat is next in the long line of COVID/pandemic-inspired novels to come out over the past 1,5 years. As I’ve had mixed feelings towards the majority of them, I went in a little apprehensive. I can tell you right now, that this is beyond a doubt my favourite lockdown-novel I’ve read.
Told in dual timelines, 59-year old Edith Harkness reflects on her life and imminent death, both of which have been marked by the pandemic she survived in her twenties. In a 2020-timeline, much like our own, a novel respiratory illness named AG3-novavirus sends the world into lockdown. Edith and her new boyfriend Halit find their young relationship challenged by an extended quarantine period together in the apartment above Edith’s wood-sculpting studio (aptly named Burntcoat).
In a secondary timeline, that could be much like our own in 30 years, Edith returns to Burntcoat, suffering from the symptoms of what’s essentially a severe-form of long-AG3: a relapse of the disease encountered decades earlier, that it universally fatal. Surrounded by her burnt-wood sculptures for which she’s since gathered much acclaim, Edith reflects on the memories lived here, and the permanent stains they’ve burned onto her own life.
I struggle when reviewers throw this word around too often, but it feels wholly justified in this case to do so: Burntcoat is a masterpiece. It’s the definitive “lockdown-novel”; we can stop writing them now. It’s also so much more than that. It’s a deeply intense, claustrophobic and at times almost physical exploration of body, art, and the intensity in which we connect to others under pressure.
Body is a central theme throughout this novel, the way we experience it, carry it, and occasionally surrender it, whether that be to desire, sickness or the care of another human. It’s present in Edith’s memories of taking care of her disabled mother; in the thin line where loss of control and preservation of dignity touch. It’s present in the progression of relationship between Edith and Halit: one initially based off frantic, physical desire, and pressurised into something more.
As difficult a theme as this can be to explore, Sarah Hall manages it in an insightful and confident way, all in under 300 pages. Chapeau.
Befitting of such a difficult theme, I was at times uncomfortable reading this novel. For example, during the parts where the narrative becomes a little more fragmented, mirroring Edith’s fragmentary state-of-mind during her illness. It’s not easy to read, yet fits perfectly into the story. The same could be said for some of the more graphic sex-scenes that some readers seem to have fallen over. In my opinion, they were completely fitting within the aforementioned exploration of body, and therefore I didn’t mind them.
Overall, Burntcoat might well be one of my favourite pieces of literature of 2021. A perfectly crafted, intense story that burned its way into my marrow and will haunt me for a long time to come…
Many thanks to Faber&Faber for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Burntcoat is out on October 7th 2021.