Mia Levitin

Only time will tell if there’ll be a Great Pandemic Novel

Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat now enters the lists — the story of a sculptor with a deadlier version of Covid-19 finding inspiration for her final commission

Sarah Hall. [Getty Images]

We had been dreading it like (forgive me) the plague: the inevitable onslaught of corona-lit. Fortunately, the first few titles out of the gate have been in capable hands. Zadie Smith reflected on lockdown in Intimations, a slim volume of personal essays; the virus featured in Ali Smith’s Orwell Prize-winning Summer; and Sarah Moss imagines a lockdown hike gone awry in her forthcoming novel The Fell.

The twice Booker-nominated novelist and short story writer Sarah Hall also felt compelled to address the calamity, rising in the dark to write before home schooling her daughter during lockdown. ‘I’m not saying I was particularly equipped,’ Hall explained in a press release. ‘But some part of me — a kind of first responder — wanted to work.’

In Burntcoat, Hall gives the pandemic a near-dystopian twist. Edith Harkness is a successful sculptor who contracted ‘novavirus’ — a deadlier version of Covid-19 — in her thirties. Now 59 (‘old for carriers’), she is dying of a relapse. In her final days, she looks back on her life: a childhood spent with her mother, Naomi, who never fully recovered from a stroke; an abusive relationship at art school; her artistic ascendance after an apprenticeship in Japan.

At the centre of the story is her recollection of an intense love affair with Halit, a Turkish-Bulgarian restaurateur, with whom she locked down at Burntcoat, her studio and home. Their private passion, where ‘other worlds cease’, is juxtaposed with the growing threat outside: as the disease spread, the public descended into looting and violence. When Halit came down with the virus and there was no hospital bed to be found, Edith nursed him before falling ill herself.

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