In an unnamed British city, the virus is spreading, and like everyone else, the celebrated sculptor Edith Harkness retreats inside. She isolates herself in her immense studio, Burntcoat, with Halit, the lover she barely knows. As life outside changes irreparably, inside Burntcoat, Edith and Halit find themselves changed as well: by the histories and responsibilities each carries and bears, by the fears and dangers of the world outside, and by the progressions of their new relationship. And Burntcoat will be transformed, too, into a new and feverish world, a place in which Edith comes to an understanding of how we survive the impossible—and what is left after we have.
... pretty intense ... Burntcoat is marked by superb stylistic economy. As in her short stories, her concerns are expansive ... Burntcoat is a fierce, lyrical, not always controlled but compelling work. It sets a high bar for the pandemic novels to come.
What’s fascinating here...are Hall’s revelations about illness and its relationship to creativity and to sexuality ... Hall has always written sex well and seriously, has always allowed desire to effloresce even in the most unlikely situations, but now she makes sex the heart of the book, describing it lyrically ... The scenes where the feverish man and the exhausted woman come together in their infected bed have an extraordinary erotic intensity; it is there also in the brutally visceral descriptions of his final decline ... This terrible, ambivalent closeness takes all of Hall’s magnificent powers as a novelist to describe. I was left feeling that only she could write it. Just as powerful are her awed descriptions of the virus itself ... The hope in this sparse, sumptuous, brilliant book is that the work of finding meaning and truth can be continued even in extremity, even as art and love slip away.
Hall, the author of several previous novels, is best known as a much-decorated short-story writer, and Burntcoat carries a flavor of that form—in its lush intensity, its abrupt leaps in time and its reliance on mood and image and theme over scope or gradual development. There’s a quality akin to Marilynne Robinson, though Hall pays less attention to the intricacies of psychology ... an insistently poetic novel.