Sarah Hall

Faber, £12.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Sarah Hall began her sixth novel in the wee small hours of the first day of lockdown last year. She has since described herself as “a kind of first responder” to the crisis, and one who felt compelled to keep working through it: “Like Burntcoat’s protagonist, I know art can’t really offer a cure,” she has said. “But I had to write this book.”

That protagonist is the latest in a line of memorable women who have made their presence felt in Hall’s fiction. Edith Harkness is an acclaimed sculptor whose work includes the celebrated yet also controversial structure Hecky the Witch, a “half-burnt assemblage lofting high as a church tower” over the motorway traffic at Scotch Corner. Edith’s projects have been big and bold throughout her career. Now, though, her life is drawing to a close. In her apartment above her vast studio, Burntcoat, she looks back on all that she has achieved, endured and desired while also contemplating her mortality.

Hall’s narrative takes the form of a series of chopped-up, spaced-out paragraphs. Most of them are detailed chunks which chart developments, convey emotions and relay memories and meditations. Some are vignettes comprising a mere sentence or two which make short, sharp points or add impressionistic dabs of colour. Each paragraph brings us closer to Edith; together they amount to a singular life and a satisfying whole.

Edith reflects on her early years. When she is eight, her mother, Naomi, suffers a devastating brain haemorrhage. Her agonisingly slow rehabilitation ruptures the family and results in mother and daughter swapping a hectic city for a remote cottage at the end of a valley. There, Edith is raised “capably and neglectfully, by a borrowed woman and her shadow”.

Later we get a portrait of an artist as a young woman. On an international exchange in Japan, Edith tries to wriggle free of “the corset of fine art” and learns key sculpture techniques from her instructor Shun. Back home, Edith’s career takes off. She needs a large studio so she buys and repurposes a derelict warehouse. It does the job: she can “play mega-Lego” here, crafting one colossal structure after another. Success comes, and with it, to her discomfort, fame and wealth.

But Edith’s life has not only been about Naomi and work. A toxic relationship with a destructive boyfriend leaves her scarred and unable to commit to anything but art. When she meets Halit in a restaurant her luck changes and a happier, headier romance blooms. But then they learn of a virus spreading westwards. Edith believes it will pass after a few months of masks and closures but eventually she and Halit are forced to take refuge in Burntcoat and each other. “All we had was love, its useless currency, its powerful denial.” But will it be enough?

To date, Hall has used the rugged, open landscape of her native Cumbria as a vivid backdrop to her novels. It surrounds a cut-off community in her 2002 debut Haweswater; it provides a training-ground for an all-female battalion of freedom fighters in her dystopian nightmare The Carhullan Army; and it serves as fertile territory for rewilding and regeneration in her last novel, The Wolf Border. This time around, the setting is mostly urban, the perfect environment for a ravaging pandemic to do its worst.

However, many of Hall’s other signature tropes are on full display, in particular her unvarnished depictions of sex and her more lyrical phrasings: cold air has “the gunpowder-and-salt smell of winter”; overhead leaves are “luminescing and murmuring like the low voice of a woman”.

Hall has written a novel which is, by turn, erotic, tragic and elegiac. It may not cure anything but it most definitely has the power to move and enthral.