Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat Review – Love in Containment | fiction
WWhat if the virus had been more deadly, more contagious? What if UK deaths had numbered in the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands? These are questions most of us have asked ourselves, imagining scenarios in which, as philosopher Srećko Horvat puts it in his book After the Apocalypse, Covid is a revelation of the deadly new viruses to come, fueled by the scientific experimentation and ecological collapse. Today, Sarah Hall has turned these imaginaries into a novel, both epic and miniature, the story of two lovers cut off from a world that is falling apart.
Edith is a sculptor, raised by a single mother disabled by a stroke. She overcame the fragility of her upbringing by creating large and often violent works of public art. She rose to fame with Hecky, a 40-foot witch crouching by the side of the freeway. As always with Hall, the setting combines a sense of displacement with intense specificity; Edith lives in a ‘milieu’ in Scotland where she has transformed a large warehouse called Burntcoat into a combination of home and studio. This is where she begins her love affair with Halit, an immigrant chef. Lockdown arrives and Halit moves in with her. They have the confidence of new lovers: “It didn’t seem possible that the joy was disturbed, or that our bodies could break. “
Around them, society is collapsing, plagued by disease and confinement. The virus is spreading wildly “according to ethnicity and poverty” and there are brawls in food banks and burgled stores. The government responded with more authoritarianism: the military patrolled the streets, curfews were imposed for everyone. Halit goes out to retrieve food from his old restaurant and comes home bleeding. A few days later, he develops lesions – AIDS also seems to be in the imaginative mix here – and his illness begins.
I doubt the value of dystopia in our present moment. Hall’s fictional version isn’t the virus or lockdown we’ve had, and there is a danger that we can fall further into our current dead ends if we give in to the desire to fantasize about the apocalypse. What is fascinating here, however, are Hall’s revelations about the disease and its relationship to creativity and sexuality. She may have needed to imagine a more extreme form of the virus to explore this terrain.
Hall has always written sex well and seriously, has always allowed desire to flourish even in the most unlikely of situations, but now she’s making sex the heart of the book, describing it in words: “When we parted, it was like drowning. We could only breathe with our mouths held together. Ultimately, this pandemic will bring out a puritanism in Edith, leaving her to ask as little as possible of the world. But in the meantime, Halit’s disease offers a sort of terrible but ecstatic consumption of their love. The scenes where the feverish man and the exhausted woman meet in their infected bed have an extraordinary erotic intensity; it is there too in the brutally visceral descriptions of its final decline. “He will do it for me too,” she thinks, after cleaning up her mess of bodily fluids, “and there will be nothing hidden between us.” The logic of erotic unity and the facts of the disease come together.
This terrible and ambivalent closeness takes all of Hall’s magnificent powers as a novelist to describe. I had the feeling that only she could write it. Equally powerful are his awe-inspiring descriptions of the virus itself, which Edith respects as a work of art in its own right. ” I repeat. It was – it’s – perfect, ”she wrote. “Perfectly composed, star-like and programmed for the moment of greatest chaos.” As an artist, she grapples with what to do with her fear. The question arises as to whether the demonic creativity of the virus signals the end of other forms of creativity or could spur new ones. One kind of response comes by sculpting the virus itself, as she does when tasked with making a memorial for the dead.
At the end of the book, which is also the beginning, Edith is 59 years old and preparing to die. It is a virus that kills everyone it infects; people usually don’t survive in remission for as long as she does. The book we read is therefore a reflection of a dying woman, and the memories of her mother are touchingly evoked within the framework of its elliptical structure. With those she loved most now dead, Edith turns to the virus or to death herself as a lover once the disease catches up with her; the “you” of dead Halit and the “you” of death become difficult to disentangle. “You want to test my courage,” she writes, now comparing herself to the little child who visited her mother in the hospital after her stroke, “to see the unspeakable and torn mark left by your near miss” . She is torn between the truth of the virus and the truth of her dead lover, “a tear in it all, a sudden gift of truth”. The hope in this sparse, sumptuous and brilliant book is that the work of searching for meaning and truth can continue even to the extreme, even as art and love escape.