Sarah Hall, an accomplished British writer, has published several novels set in distinct historical eras. "The Electric Michelangelo," her tale of transgressive artists in long-ago New York, was a finalist for the coveted Booker Prize. Hall's latest is something different — it's as topical as fiction gets.
In "Burntcoat," a merciless virus has paralyzed the planet. Hall's sixth novel, with its quarantines, variants and "domestic death behind closed curtains," could only be more current if it were serialized on social media.
This, of course, won't appeal to readers who'd rather think about anything but our own very real global-health disaster. But those who give "Burntcoat" a try will find that Hall has crafted a harrowing and memorable vision of decay, collapse and recovery.
Set in a near-future England, the story is narrated by Edith Harkness, a 59-year-old artist. As she prepares a sculpture to memorialize the dead, Edith recalls her life's seminal moments.
At 32, she falls in love with Halit, a chef who fled from a Middle Eastern war. Their romance has just begun when the infectious malady known as AG3 begins striking down victims of all ages. Hall's fictional disease causes COVID-esque chaos. Intensive-care beds fill up. Foreign travel halts. Schools close.
Edith and Halit retreat to Burntcoat, the converted warehouse where she makes huge artworks. When they venture out, terrible things happen. One day, she punches a bully in a grocery line. Another, he's robbed and badly beaten. Society is splitting apart, its rules and norms disintegrating. Halit and Edith take refuge in sex, which Hall describes in up-close detail. But when Halit shows AG3 symptoms — nausea, weakness, weight loss — they join the millions whose lives are measured in grim tallies: "The days in confinement. The hours until the true sickness arrived. The percentage of survivors."
Hall is perceptive, and her prose is often lovely, though a few of her sentences are horrendous. She's insightful about an underappreciated art-world dynamic — the acute sexism that afflicts female "land-artist(s)" who make colossal outdoor sculptures — and conveys a tangible sense of what it's like to make art with difficult materials. To heat and shape wrought iron is to behold "the forced grace of elements in a molten, malleable state."
But Hall's sex scenes feature some laughable phrases — "walls of meat," "its unhoused state" — and her prose can be pretentious. In a fugue-like scene, Edith is "on fire and still alive, when I knew I would see the other side, and you opened the mask. Behind it, appalling, extracting endlessness." This is needlessly confusing.
Nonetheless, "Burntcoat" is powerful and generally well constructed. Read it tomorrow or a decade from now — either way, it'll convey a palpable sense of what it feels like to be alive in 2021, another grueling year shaped by an epochal crisis.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.
By: Sarah Hall.
Publisher: Custom House, 224 pages, $27.99.