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It’s perhaps inevitable that the next several months and years will see a flood of pandemic novels. Some of them will be very good at saying something new about what our recent history means, while others will be less so. But it’s almost certain that at least some readers will compare everything that follows to Sarah Hall’s exquisite BURNTCOAT, which manages to transform the pandemic into a commentary on what it means to be an artist, and to be human.

Hall’s relatively slim book packs a lot into it. Narrated in spare, fragmentary bits --- many of them addressed by the narrator, Edith, to a “you” whose identity is malleable and perhaps even open to debate --- the novel manages to be both abstract and precise. Its contemporary sections take place in an unnamed city in the north of England, centered on the location of the book’s title, a huge and ugly industrial warehouse where Edith constructs her massive art pieces.

"Both apocalyptic and strangely hopeful, BURNTCOAT is the work of a talented, thoughtful novelist engaging masterfully and inventively with the pressing concerns of our time."

Edith has been an artist, a sculptor of monumental works, since childhood when she constructed a life-sized boat out of found materials in the woods near the isolated cottage she shared with her mother, Naomi. Once a celebrated novelist, Naomi suffered brain damage following an aneurysm when Edith was a young girl. Ever since, Edith has felt both profound sadness and fierce protection for her mother, even as she sometimes underestimates Naomi’s capabilities.

Scenes from Edith’s childhood and young adulthood spent in that isolated place are interspersed with later scenes, first as Edith and her new lover Halit sequester themselves at Burntcoat as a virulent pandemic (not COVID but something even more devastating) ravages the country. As Edith and Halit (a chef) come to terms with what this isolation means for their creative pursuits and as they cling to each other physically, and later as Halit becomes infected with the virus, they find their relationship to each other and their understanding of themselves transformed. The framing story of the novel takes place even later, as Edith --- the virus that has been latent in her body for years now resurfacing --- reflects on her life while preparing for her most monumental artwork yet, one that may even serve as her memorial.

As mentioned, despite its trim size and fragmented structure, BURNTCOAT touches on many powerful and relevant themes, including the struggles of the artist to make art during or after a crisis, the challenges and outright hostility faced by a female visual artist, and whether the artist has a responsibility to respond to either accolades and awards or criticism, even outrage, at their work. Hall also skillfully depicts sex, in scenes that are more visceral than erotic, and that pair powerfully with the very different kinds of intimacy required when the virus begins to take over the body.

Both apocalyptic and strangely hopeful, BURNTCOAT is the work of a talented, thoughtful novelist engaging masterfully and inventively with the pressing concerns of our time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 12, 2021

by Sarah Hall

  • Publication Date: November 22, 2022
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Custom House
  • ISBN-10: 0062657097
  • ISBN-13: 9780062657091