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Sarah Hall: Burntcoat

Sarah Hall is, in my view, one of the foremost English novelists writing today. I suspect that she does not get the attention she deserves because she is from the North of England and her books are set, at least in part, in the North of England. This one is no different for, though our heroine makes brief excursions to Japan and Thailand and has friends and a lover from other countries, it still remains a Northern England novel.

This book has another interesting feature. It is a pandemic novel but one seemingly written after the arrival of covid and therefore influenced by what happened during the covid era in the UK and elsewhere. It is not covid. It is called variously novavirus, AG3 and other titles. It is seemingly more virulent than covid and one of its symptoms seems to be Black Death-type lesions on the body. At the beginning of the book, our heroine, Edith Harkness, by then fifty-nine, seems to have the long covid equivalent of it, though this long version is often fatal.

Edith is the only child of Naomi and Adam. Both are in the arts. Edith is a successful novelist. Adam runs the local playhouse. One day when Edith was ten and the three of them are out, Naomi stumbles and cannot get up and cannot see. She has had an aneurysm. She does survive but the aneurysm has a profound effect on her. As Edith says, she lost a mother and got Naomi instead.

Naomi has changed and she struggles to readapt and reconnect with the world. Her speech is defective and sometimes no-one can understand what she says. She also is also, not surprisingly, often forgetful, and careless and struggles to relearn how to live. Adam finds this very trying and decides to leave. He wants to take Edith but she is sticking by her mother.

Can Naomi cope? A social worker is sent round to watch over them but the pair, more or less, cope. Naomi sells the house and she buys a remote cottage and the two get on with life. As she grows up, it is clear Edith wants to be an artist and not just an ordinary artist but an artist who builds monumental structures that are displayed in public arenas.

We follow her career from her first effort – building a large ship in her mother’s garden – to art school from going to Japan to learn shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique of charring timber for artistic effect, to Hecky (her nickname for it), known as the Scorch Corner Witch, a monumental shou sugi ban statue near the road at Scotch Corner, and clearly inspired by (though very differnt from) Antony Gormley‘s Angel of the North.

With the money she makes (a lot) she buys Burntcoat, a disused warehouse which she converts into a combined living space and huge studio for her work. We meet her aged fifty-nine early in this book and she is engaged what will be her final monumental work.

We have followed her early life with her mother, not always easy but one the two manage to get through, and her art. However, as mentioned there is a third element – the pandemic. While living in Burntcoat, she goes to a small restaurant with her two girlfriends and there she meets the chef/owner. He is called Halit, has a Russian name but is clearly Turkish (using both Turkish words and mentioning Turkish places). They start a relationship and this seems to be the most important relationship of her life. However, the pandemic breaks out and we follow both the wider development of the pandemic (the UK prime minister is a woman – it is not clear whether Hall has left Theresa May in power or has just invented an arbitrary woman prime minister). Things get out of hand even more than they did with covid.

Hall beautifully mixes in Edith’s artistic aspirations and work, her struggles with her mother and the pandemic. In many ways it is a feminist novel – as mentioned even the UK prime minister during the pandemic gets a sex change – with the struggles of Edith and Naomi (and Adam’s abandonment of his wife and daughter), and most of the women being seen in a positive light, coping with life, while most (but certainly not all) of the men behaving somewhat badly. However, you do not have to read it as a feminist novel; it is much more than that – a love novel, an art novel, a pandemic novel, above all a novel about people and their aspirations facing real life with its myriad problems.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Faber & Faber