Burntcoat is the story of Edith Harkness and her reconciliation with Death as she prepares for her end from the relapse of a frightful disease, part of a global pandemic. She reminisces about her life, most of her memories concentrate on her childhood with her mother and her last romance, her pandemic love affair with Halit, the owner of a nearby restaurant. She also spends some time on how her career flourished. She won a huge commission at the start of her career, one that was met with the same anger and awe as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.
She had an unusual childhood. Her mother had some brain damage from an aneurism and had to relearn the basic skills. Her father left and though he sued for custody when he lost, he did not try to stay in her life. Her mother was not demonstrative, but she came through with surprising strength, in particular when she confronted Edith’s early, bad boyfriend.
The book starts with the lockdown for this great pandemic. It is worse than COVID, much more deadly. It takes longer for them to find a vaccine and the world is disrupted even more with food shortages and violence. Edith and Halit both get it, which we know from the beginning as she has relapsed.
Burntcoat is beautifully written for the most part. Sarah Hall knows how to craft a sentence. It also is very graphic. I’ve read plenty of erotica and this is the first time I felt uncomfortable with it. It felt like Sarah Hall was trying to write about sex differently, but in her effort to avoid euphemism, it became so much about the mechanics and the fluids.
The greatest flaw, though, was in Hall’s choice to make the disease not be COVID. With COVID there were hate crimes and violence, so why the need to make a new, even worse pandemic? It felt like a cop-out, an abdication of her responsibility. I know she’s the writer. It’s her choice, but it was a bad choice. There were unforgivable choices made during COVID, we didn’t need to supersize the disease to get incompetent government, food shortages, and hate crimes.
So, I think this book is great writing skill wasted on cringe sex and a cop-out virus. Edith is interesting, I cared about her, but her mother Naomi was for me, the heart of the book.
I received an ARC of Burntcoat from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.