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Burntcoat

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One thing that really stood out for me was how damage is depicted as leading to strength, as we see with the Shou Sugi Ban art technique she uses, or how her mother becomes a really strong woman after such a catastrophic brain bleed, or how Burntcoat rises like a phoenix from a history of neglect and dilapidation. In places it’s lyrical, there are some original and powerful images that will stick in my mind for a long time they’re so stunningly creative. Nothing had prepared me for the emotion I felt there, the acceptance, finding myself in tears and becoming part of the flood. Durante estes dois anos de pandemia fui incapaz de ler obras sobre vírus, contágios e epidemias, pelo que “A Peste”, “Estação Onze”, “O Véu Pintado” e outros que vi terem muita procura ficaram totalmente fora do meu radar.

It’s a wildly controversial piece, simultaneously attracting fulsome praise and reactionary outrage – a point that Hall, to her credit, never labours or overplays. The prose is utterly sublime throughout – graceful and elegant in tone, almost meditative at times, especially when conveying the intimacy between the two lovers. I’m collecting titles of novels written around Covid and you’ve convinced me this one’s a great addition!

Burntcoat is undeniably dark, intense and unsettling, but it is also incredibly good, utterly compelling and completely gripping. The timeline is not linear, and confusion was magnified as we bounced back and forth and all over the place…from past to present to future. When her parents’ marriage deteriorates in the year following her haemorrhage, Edith is left alone to care for Naomi in the absence of her father. I love the art element, the huge pieces she creates (think scale of the Angel of the North) are visually amazing and are described so well you can see them in your minds eye. 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.

Resilience seems to be a key unifying theme here – so we have Naomi’s resilience in coping with her stroke (and Edith’s in looking after her); then there’s the fact that Edith has been living with Novo lying dormant in her body for several years, which demonstrates another kind of strength or resilience; and there’s the wood burning technique she learns in Japan, the way the wood is charred to strengthen it, which sounds counterintuitive in theory but works beautifully in practice. Hovering throughout is the question of whether the demonic creativity of the virus signals the end of other forms of creativity or might spur new ones.The parts that resonated most with me were about Edith's art - and the process of her sculpting with burnt wood. To the days when the world shut down, when she and her new love, Halit, went into lockdown together. The government responds with more authoritarianism: the military patrol the streets, curfews are introduced for all.

In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death. The hope in this sparse, sumptuous, brilliant book is that the work of finding meaning and truth can be continued even in extremity, even as art and love slip away. With those she has loved the most now dead, Edith turns to the virus or to death itself as a lover once illness has overtaken her; the “you” of the dead Halit and the “you” of death become hard to disentangle. Opening upon a scene a couple of decades in the future, 59-year old Edith Harkness — world famous sculptor; master of the Japanese Shou Sugi Ban technique of burning wood to seal it against decomposition — discovers that the AG3 novavirus, which had lain dormant in her since surviving a devastating pandemic as a young woman, has reactivated, giving her only days to live. She’s not afraid of big themes and has the talent to back up her ambition, but she’s just as good at the intimate and domestic.Love, family, coping with illness and disability, humanity particularly in the face of calamity and disruption, art, memory and loss are some of the many themes here. 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.

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