An artist in confinement, forged by the disaster

By Sarah Hall

The disaster pushes Edith Harkness, the sculptor protagonist of Sarah Hall’s novel “Burntcoat”, to new heights of productivity. She feels at home there, assuming the implicit trust in Woolf’s recommendations of “money and a room of one’s own,” without the comforts. “Part of me enjoyed the crisis, I admit it,” she says, recalling the time she spent in detention with her lover, Halit, in a cathedral-like studio as a pandemic. fictitious began to ravage a fictitious Britain. “There was relief, almost, in the worst promise, and I think being two, as we were, so dependent on each other and against the world, was like my upbringing. Artists do not age.

Harkness’ fairytale childhood actually set her up to thrive in these apocalyptic conditions. When she was 8 years old, her mother, Naomi, a writer, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which changed her personality; Edith’s father quickly abandoned them, and after pushing back child welfare, the mother and daughter took refuge in an overgrown cottage in the desert where each was free to embrace their strangeness. : they “grew around each other like vines”. The first work of art that Edith made, when she was still a child, was a large ship in their garden; its rooms are often vessels in which one can hide or escape.

The mortality seemed more immediate for both of them than for the others. Naomi retained an inoperable swelling which could rupture at any time; Edith is a carrier of the same disease. Yet one cannot help but notice that within this elevated atmosphere, life is more like an artist’s fantasy: isolation, autonomy a hard-won rebellion and therefore heroic, few obligations beyond l art and survival, everything vibrates with beauty and meaning. Likewise, the novel’s social horrors of Britain – its racism, bitter bickering over dwindling resources, people dying from disease and government incompetence or “cremated in deadly towers” – tend to stay in the background, sharpening the elemental realm of mountains, moors and waterfalls in which Harkness, narrating as a grieving 59-year-old who builds a memorial to the million dead, lives and carves. Hall, the author of several previous novels, is best known as a highly decorated short story writer, and “Burntcoat” carries a flavor of this form – in its lush intensity, sharp jumps in time, and reliance on mood and mood. the image. and the theme on scope or progressive development. There is a similar quality to Marilynne Robinson, although Hall pays less attention to the intricacies of psychology.

The novel’s imagery constantly reinforces the notion of art and artists forged from catastrophic damage. As a young woman, Harkness was trained by a mentor, Shun, in the Japanese art of shou sugi ban, in which the practitioner prepares his equipment by approaching as close as possible to destroy it without actually doing it. She applies the flame to the cedar, “breaking down the cell walls to strengthen the wood, preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty.” Too much heat and the room was ruined, too little and the wood was not sealed, could not reach the finish. Shun called this experience. The wood is on fire now. It will be improved.

Love is also presented, at least at the level of metaphor – which is crucial for “Burntcoat”, a poetically emphatically novel – as an existential threat. Another of Harkness’s sculptures depicts the old fable of trust, privacy, and risk in which a crane removes a bone from a wolf’s throat: “The wolf could eat the bird.” But the wolf cannot eat until the bone is peeled off. What if it was a trick? What if there are no bones? The crane won’t know until its head is inside, past the teeth. However, the relationship between Halit and Edith is mainly to take care of and admire the body of the other, whether it is at the extremes of the disease or engaged in a series of often very aestheticized sexual acts. In practice, Hall seems far less interested in the terrifying things human creatures can do with each other than in examining their fragility, overshadowed by an impersonal fate looming: exile, a cyst, a virus.

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