Burncoat by Sarah Hall #bookreview

In the bedroom above her immense studio at Burntcoat, the celebrated sculptor Edith Harkness is making her final preparations. The symptoms are well known: her life will draw to an end in the coming days.

Downstairs, the studio is a crucible glowing with memories and desire. It was here, when the first lockdown came, that she brought Halit. The lover she barely knew. A presence from another culture. A doorway into a new and feverish world.

While the virus is different, the symptoms more severe, there is something very familiar about the world Edith Harkness is living in. One that has been ravaged by an disease, one where there is no cure and no vaccine to prevent serious illness. She and her lover, Halit, lockdown, stay home, try to wait it out. But it is impossible to truly hide away. Now, at the end of her life, she looks back, through the time of the virus, and before that, right through to her childhood and the woman who shaped her – her mother Naomi.

She tells her story in a tone that is both emotionless and full of emotion – which doesn’t make sense, I know, but is the only way to describe it. She has accepted her fate but she has lived a life that has allowed her to find and experience love that she never imagined possible. And there is something wonderful and yet tragic about it.

For once, I have to say that the praise heaped on this novel by other writers (‘dark and brilliant’, ‘a masterpiece’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘searing’) seem to fit the story I have just read and are doing a better job that I can of explaining just how wonderful a book this was.

Not my normal type of read, it has left me a bit confused because of how the story unfolded, the style of writing, the tone. I was worried at first that I was being swayed by the praise – that I felt I had to love it. So I’ve slept on it. And slept some more. And, no, the feeling is still with me. I have been taken on an emotional journey that I think it will take me a while to recover from. 5/5 stars.

Emma

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