Monday 7 March 2022

BURNTCOAT by Sarah Hall, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"There's resilience in the pervading metaphor of the burnt wood whose beauty is enhanced by its near-destruction."

Linda Newbery
edits Writers Review. Best known for fiction for children and young adults, with titles including the Costa Category winner Set in Stone, she has also published one novel for adults, Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon, and is currently working on another. Her latest title, This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us, is a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults.

Burntcoat is the name of an abandoned industrial building in an unnamed northern town which becomes the home of sculptor Edith Harkness; also, it's the technique she learns from a Japanese master, almost destroying a piece of wood by burning, then scraping off charcoal to reveal the beauty of the grain beneath.

This is the third novel I've read recently that looks at the breakdown of daily life, and how humans survive when the support systems they depend on are abruptly removed. In Jessie Greengrass's The High House, climate change has led to drastically rising sea levels. In The Stranding, by Kate Sawyer, a presumed nuclear disaster has wiped out the northern hemisphere and much of the south, leaving few survivors. The main scenario in Burntcoat is both familiar and not-familiar: there's a pandemic, there's lockdown, there are fears, masks and empty streets, but this is not the pandemic we're living through now. The quickly-spreading disease is plague-like in its symptoms effects, and it lies dormant but menacing for years afterwards in 'carriers' like Edith, which is where we begin the story.

Celebrated for her work, Edith, aged 59 in the later parts of the novel, has completed a monumental piece which is to be a memorial to those who died, and is making preparations for a lonely death.  We piece her life together: her childhood, her art studies, her meeting with lover Halit shortly before lockdown restrictions were imposed, and something of the years between then and now.

The narrative is unusual in the brevity of its sections and its abrupt shifts back and forth in time, and also because it uses first/second-person, addressing a 'you' we can't at first identify. It takes a while to sort out the various characters, merely names dropped in at first. Dialogue is rendered in italics, without speech marks.

Later the 'you' becomes Halit, a Turkish immigrant working as a chef, with whom Edith has an intensely physical relationship, moving into lockdown with him at Burntcoat shortly after they meet. Although there's this interlude of love, trust and intimacy, Edith's life seems to have been shaped for hardship and loss, so that the austerity of Burntcoat - converted into a vast working space below, living quarters above - is a fitting home. "When I was eight, my mother left and Naomi arrived," she misleadingly tells us; her mother suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage from which she made a slow partial recovery, bringing up Edith alone. At art school Edith sets herself apart from fellow students, and wins a scholarship to Japan where she aims to "escape the corset of fine art".

The joyous physicality of sex is set against the decaying of bodies as they succumb to disease; but there's resilience too in the pervading metaphor of the burnt wood whose beauty is enhanced by its near-destruction. "A life is a bead of water on the black surface, so frail, so strong, its world incredibly held."

Edith's character blends defiance and acceptance, her story told with measured calmness. I'm full of admiration for Sarah Hall's boldness and range, and her ability to move easily from close-range to detached observation and back again. Although Burntcoat is a relatively short novel it feels big and expansive. I'll be very surprised if it doesn't appear on awards shortlists this year. 

Burntcoat is published by Faber.

Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border is reviewed here by Cindy Jefferies.

Linda Newbery's This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us is published by Pavilion.

No comments: