Sarah Hall’s sensuous and urgent virus novel

Burntcoat powerfully examines how disaster can remake people
November 7, 2021
Prospect receives commission when you buy a book using this page. Thank you for supporting us.

Burntcoat, the latest novel by the English writer and poet Sarah Hall, is about a virus called AG3—similar to Covid in many ways, but quicker to spread and deadlier. Even if you survive your first bout, you are certain to eventually die when the disease surges back within you. It spreads in the country “along lines of ethnicity and poverty, exposing the country’s bias”; desperate people fight over food while soldiers patrol the streets.

Edith Harkness, a sculptor, is making the final arrangements for her last work—a monument to the pandemic’s victims—as she herself prepares for a death that she has known for years will come from AG3. She marvels at the virus slowly killing her: “we are not separate; I continue, it continues. I admire its cleverness, and patience.”

Hall weaves Edith’s narration of her bleak present with her childhood spent with her mother Naomi, who had been fundamentally altered by a brain injury. The accident deprived her of a parent, Edith suggests: “When I was eight my mother died and Naomi arrived.”

While dying, Edith dwells mostly on the frenzied lockdown she spent with her lover, Halit, a Turkish waiter she met at a restaurant just as AG3 was sweeping the world. Their “useless” love is a “denial” of the horror outside; their sex feels reckless and transgressive—“the wall behind me pinned like an accomplice.”

When Halit is infected, their sex becomes even more dangerous. (“There was a different smell to your body, in the glands, coppery, sour.”) As he gets sicker, she tends to him—hoping that when she gets ill, “he will do it for me too, and there will be nothing left hidden between us.” When he does not recover, it becomes clear that the “you” of the novel is both the dead Halit and—occasionally—death itself.

The book powerfully examines how disaster can remake people. Hall’s writing is sensual and urgent throughout. Edith strengthens her sculptures by using the Japanese technique of burning cedar. After her first bout of the virus she lives simply, but the damage has left her more resilient. She is, she says, “the wood in the fire.”