Saturday, December 4

Sarah Hall Burntcoat Review – Love Under Lockdown | Fiction


WWhat if the virus had been more deadly, more infectious? What if deaths in the UK had been in the millions instead of hundreds of thousands? These are questions most of us have asked ourselves, imagining scenarios in which, as philosopher Srećko Horvat says in his book After the Apocalypse, Covid is a revelation of deadly new viruses to come, fueled by scientific experiments and ecological collapse. . Now Sarah Hall has turned those imaginations into a novel, both epic and miniature, the story of two lovers separated from a disintegrating world.

Edith is a sculptor, raised by a single mother who was disabled by a stroke. He has overcome the fragility of his education by making vast, often violent works of public art. She became famous with Hecky, a 40-foot witch squatting by the side of the freeway. As always in Hall, the setting combines a sense of displacement with intense specificity; Edith lives in a “middle ground” in Scotland, where she has converted a department store called Burntcoat into a combination of home and studio. It is here that his love affair with Halit, an immigrant chef, begins. The blockade arrives and Halit moves in with her. They have the confidence of new lovers: “It did not seem possible that the joy would be interrupted, or that our bodies could break.”

Around him, society collapses, corroded by disease and confinement. The virus spreads wildly “along ethnic and poverty lines” and there are fights at food banks and robbed stores. The government responds with more authoritarianism: the military patrols the streets, curfews are introduced for everyone. Halit goes out to rescue food from his old restaurant and comes home bleeding. A few days later he develops lesions (AIDS seems to be in the imaginative mix here too) and his illness begins.

I doubt the value of dystopia in our present moment. The fictional version of Hall is not the virus or crash we’ve had, and there is a danger that we will fall further into our current stalemate 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. You 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 situations, but now he makes sex the heart of the book, describing it lyrically: “When we parted, I felt like I was drowning. We could only breathe with our mouths together. ”Ultimately, this pandemic will bring out a puritanism in Edith, leaving her asking the world for as little as possible. But in the meantime, Halit’s illness offers a kind of terrible but ecstatic consummation of her love. The scenes where the feverish man and the exhausted woman come together in his infected bed have an extraordinary erotic intensity; it is also there in the brutally visceral descriptions of his final decline. “He will do it for me too,” she thinks, after cleaning. her disorder of bodily fluids, “and nothing will be hidden between us.” The logic of the erotic union 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 was left with the feeling that only she could write it. Just as powerful are his astonishing descriptions of the virus itself, which Edith respects as a work of art in its own right. I will say it again. It was – is – perfect, ”he writes. “Perfectly composed, like a star and timed for the moment of greatest chaos.” As an artist, you are grappling with what to do with your amazement. The question of whether the demonic creativity of the virus marks the end of other forms of creativity or could stimulate new ones looms large. A kind of response comes by sculpting the virus itself, as it does when it is commissioned to make a monument to the dead.

At the end of the book, which is also the beginning, Edith is 59 years old and preparing for death. This is a virus that kills everyone it infects; people don’t usually survive in remission as long as she does. The book we read is thus the reflection of a dying woman, and memories of her mother are poignantly evoked as part of her elliptical structure. With those she has loved most now dead, Edith turns to the virus or to death itself as a lover once the disease takes hold of her; the “you” of dead Halit and the “you” of death become difficult to unravel. “You want to test my mettle,” she writes, now comparing herself to the little girl who visited her mother in the hospital after her stroke, “to see the unspeakable and torn mark left by her near miss.” She is torn between the truth of the virus and the truth of her dead lover, “a tear in all that, a gift of sudden truth.” The hope in this rare, sumptuous, and brilliant book is that the work of finding meaning and truth can continue even in extremes, even when art and love fade.

Lara Feigel’s group is published by John Murray. Burntcoat by Sarah Hall is a Faber publication (£ 12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, request a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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