I often wonder if this whole reviewing thing isn’t a little bit futile. Not the reading books or talking about them bit. I think that’s a great part of life and something that everyone should be encouraged to do more. No, I mean arbitrarily assigning a rating to everything that I read. I never used to do it but jumped on the bandwagon a few years ago. Ratings don’t really tell you very much because they’re so personal. Everyone has an individual spectrum of greatness and it’s all very dependent on context. Take Burncoat for example. I’ve seen plenty of people say they prefer it to The Fell but I’m the opposite. The difference? They read Sarah Hall first and I didn’t. If I’d read them in a different order would I have flipped? It’s both impossible to say and pointless to speculate. On with the review.
As soon as the pandemic hit in 2020, we knew that we were going to be subjected to countless books relating to it. Those range from the ludicrous to the more literary. Burncoat is one of the more literary takes on the whole Covid-19 thing. Though not actually about the coronavirus, the novel is set against the backdrop of a similar pandemic that brings the world to a stop. Although, the virus in Sarah Hall’s book sounds even worse than Covid and the lasting results are more terrible.
Although the book starts out after the Pandemic. Edith Harkness, a prize-winning sculptor, is dying and preparing for her final days on Earth. She looks back over the various events in her life and how they shaped it. We learn about her childhood with the mother recovering from a brain haemorrhage. As such, she was forced to grow up quickly and had a rather unorthodox youth. Yet her mother encouraged her to create and helped shape her future. A future that was defined by an ancient technique involving burning wood taught to her by a master in Japan.
However, the focus of her story is the time she spent in lockdown with her new lover, Halit. The pair had only known each other for a relatively short time when the world stopped. They took refuge behind the closed doors of Edith’s home Burncoat. In such close confinement, the two people learn a lot about each other and themselves. Burncoat is the story of two people exploring their passion and intimacy. It is an electric look into a fledgling relationship that is forced to advance prematurely. As Edith relives those days, she remembers the desire she once felt. The desire that she has never forgotten.
As someone who prefers character development to plot, Burncoat was always going to be something I approved of. There can be no denying that it is a wonderful book and so beautifully written. The way Hall uses burnt wood as a metaphor for human existence is perfect. The wood in Edith’s sculptures becomes more resilient after being burnt in much the same way that Edith became stronger after every setback. It’s very effective.
It is certainly a haunting narrative and something of a slow burner. Neither of which is a bad thing. When describing a situation like the 2020 lockdown, I don’t think you want to rush your way through it. This is a book that captures the essence of the Covid-19 pandemic whilst not being an explicitly 2020 novel. It’s certainly a very accomplished and memorable book. My only issue is the non-linear narrative. It’s not something that I’ve ever been a huge fan of anyway but I don’t think this is a particularly strong example. It just becomes a bit too jumbled for my liking. I understand what Sarah Hall was probably going for with that but, as a reader, it just messed with the natural flow of the story a bit.
Burncoat is such a refreshing literary experiment. The idea of trying to capture not only a single human life but a deadly pandemic into a 200-page novel is insane. Yet, somehow, Hall manages to do both of those things. At the same time, she is using such lyrical and sensuous language. It’s going to be one of my top reads of 2021 and something that I won’t forget in a hurry.