cover image Burntcoat


Sarah Hall. Custom House, $27.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-06-265710-7

Hall (Sudden Traveller) delivers a powerful story of art and love set during a global pandemic. Edith Harkness, 59, is a famous and reclusive artist living in a massive industrial studio, Burntcoat, in an unnamed town in the North of England. She is coming to terms with the resurgence of the “novavirus,” which is like Covid-19 but worse. Several years earlier, it killed her lover, Halit, and a million others in England. Edith knows she is dying but spends her time finishing a final commission, a national memorial for the dead that she feels “cannot possibly comfort.” Edith grew up alone with her mother, Naomi, a famous writer who had to relearn how to speak and care for herself after an aneurysm. Edith thrived in her solitude as a child but when she went to art school, she faced the misogyny of teachers and was physically abused by a boyfriend. As her mother tells her, “Those who tell stories survive.” In a shifting timeline, Hall works back to just before the pandemic when Edith meets Halit. As England goes into lockdown, the couple finds bliss at Burntcoat, but soon are both ill, and she has to care for him as the hospitals are full. Hall brings perfect harmony to the sweeping themes, such as a pandemic’s impact on culture and the difficulties faced by a woman in the art world, and the prose, rich in description, is never overdone. This will serve as a benchmark for pandemic fiction. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (Nov.)