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Burntcoat

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Twenty or thirty years on, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who escaped the virus and now have some protection through vaccination; and those who were infected and survived. This terrible, ambivalent closeness takes all of Hall’s magnificent powers as a novelist to describe.

Overall I think this is a novel which will appeal to many but which did not to me as I think the choice of dystopian fiction was both overly conservative and lacking impact. But I'd say this is fiction that is almost masquerading as autofiction and has something of the sensitive thoughtfulness of a Deborah Levy or Rachel Cusk while at the same time pondering the intersection of art (the narrator is a sculptor) with individual and public crisis. It seems particularly appropriate that Halit is a Muslim immigrant from Turkey [by way of his family’s expulsion from Bulgaria], and as he is isolated from his family back home, his relationship with the white Englishwoman prods at the cultural differences between them while underscoring their meaninglessness. Halit and Edith become lovers very quickly - the sex is also brilliantly written - and then a global pandemic strikes. I recently read Sarah Moss’s “The Fell” and while it does not have anything the artistic ambition or imagination of this novel it was brave enough to actually deal with the real situation we have been living through – and to try to capture the experience of COVID (or more accurately lockdown) at a very specific time and place (England, November 2020 and the unexpected national lockdown).Oddly enough, I loved the shape-shifting aspect of it, to the point where I wondered whether the various threads might have started off as short stories in their own right. While lockdown hovered just out of eyeline in Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and provided a coda to Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, its presence is far from a garnish in Sarah Hall’s new book, a tale of sex and death told by a sculptor, Edith, whose heady liaison with a Turkish restaurateur, Halit, meets a fork in the road with the advent of a deadly virus that liquefies victims from inside. As you know, I’m very picky about which contemporary authors I choose to read these days, but Hall is the real deal. And Burntcoat will be transformed too, into a new and feverish world, a place in which Edith comes to an understanding of how we survive the impossible--and what is left after we have.

I suspect I'm doing Sarah Hall an injustice, but at times it really felt like I was reading chick lit upgraded with some artistic flair and a pandemic sauce over it. Each collection comprises just a handful of shades, dyed on a variety of yarn bases and is released as I'm reading a book I'm loving. The cause of her relapse is unknown to scientists, but what is definite is that Edith does not have long to live. We meet her at the opening of the novel, putting the finishing touches on a commission meant to mark the victims of the pandemic, which prompts her recollections of that painful event.She was forced to adapt and fill the gaps when her mother, Naomi, suffers a massive brain aneurysm, forever transforming her and welding Edith’s concept of how a life can be diminished and still be worth living. And, of course, it's not the description of a devastating pandemic that is problematic (this is, to my knowledge, the first pandemic novel I've read). The storytelling is forthright, and Sarah Hall does not hold back with the details about the pandemic and its effects on people.

Written in the second person, it tells the story of English artist Edith as she deals with the long-haul effects of a pandemic virus. A few days later he develops lesions – Aids seems to be in the imaginative mix here, too – and his illness begins. Readers are taken from her past to present and back again, as the timeline shifts fluidly in her remembrances.A kind of answer comes in sculpting the virus itself, as she does when commissioned to make a memorial for the dead. Perhaps as this is a book about abstract art then the abstraction is appropriate but I felt it was unsatisfactory and for me rather (if not completely) diminished the power of the novel.

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