I have read a couple of Sarah Hall’s previous novels and not quite gelled with them. For some reason I was seduced by Burntcoat’s cover and some of the spruiks from writers I respect. I went for it, but perhaps I should have run with my head, not my heart.
Burntcoat is the oddly named converted warehouse used by internationally renowned artist Edith Harkness. Edith constructs major public art projects and is working on The Witch, an iconic motorway installation that might be a Scottish version of The Angel of the North – made out of burnt wood, rising from the bushes. Yes, I know. The mental image of a woman rising from the bushes does not immediately make me think of witchcraft, but perhaps I have been on too many overland holidays. This art construction project involves techniques from Japan, burning the wood to preserve it.
Meanwhile, Emily shares her space with Halit, a Turkish kitchen worker, and together they shield from a deadly virus that is sweeping the world and is definitely not Covid. A million Britons will die – some from the fever and some from the residual aftereffects. Long Notcovid. And she reminisces of a past love called Ali, and a childhood marked by the illness of her mother Naomi.
All this is told in a fragmentary way with non-linear narratives. For the most part, the actual narrative is lucid, but there are digressions into metaphysics that never felt worth unravelling. Sometimes this fragmentary style can be used to great effect, gradually building a complete picture. Other times it just feels like hiding a story that doesn’t cohere, hiding details for the sake of it. So here, for example, the author goes to great lengths to delay the reveal that Halit is Turkish, although frequent use of Turkish will give that away for those who recognise the language. Except, for some reason, he is also half Bulgarian. Or leaving it for some time to reveal that Ali is short for Alistair rather than being of Arabic origin – I mean, why? Or being intentionally unspecific about the geographic location.
There are redeeming features. Some of the individual scenes are well constructed. Ali’s doorstep tantrum, perhaps. Edith’s slightly strange relationship with her mother. Plus, most mercifully, Burntcoat is short. Overall, though, there is just this sense that Burntcoat is trying too hard to be arty without too much real substance behind it.
Another of my recent buys for £1 this tells the story of Cy Parks who is brought up by his mother in the genteel world of seaside Morecambe Bay. never mind that his mother is a secret abortionist whose boarding house/hotel caters for consumptives and an annual suffragette visit, this is Cy's story. He becomes an apprentice to the local tattoo artist and when both his mother and his patron die he moves to Cony Island.
I am not quite sure what to make of this yet I'm about 1/3 of the way through. The descriptions of the tattoos and the meanings they can have for those who have them is fascinating and the slightly seedy world beautifully realised. I have to say that I think the title is superb it conjurs up some wonderful images. I will post more when I have finished.
After reading this book, I went to Amazon to see what others had to say about it. I found, much to my surprise, that it seems to have originally been published under the title of 'The Carhullan Army'. Very strange. I prefer the 'Daughters' title, I must admit. The word 'army' just doesn't feel as apt. I picked it up because I really enjoyed reading 'The Electric Michaelangelo' and wanted to read more of Hall.
This book is along the lines of 'Children of Men' and 'The Handmaid's Tale' portraying a dystopic future. Britain is in shambles, the government has fallen, it is in financial ruin as well as physical ruin due to floods and other natural disasters. People are living squashed into cramped quarters, with no real work and with many of their liberties taken away from them, in particular, the women are forced to wear coils so they cannot bear children. One woman decides she has had enough and puts her life at risk by attempting to leave her city and find a settlement of women who long ago shunned all of the outside world and live in a high and remote area of the Lake District.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Hall really does impress me as this book feels completely different from Electric Michaelangelo. So many authors churn out books that all feel the same - are written the same way - but I didn't feel that with this. While TEM was more lyrical and wafty, this prose has more punch and bite, as befitting it's subject matter.
I felt the reality of the dystopia really quite keenly. While I would probably say that 'The Handmaid's Tale' had a more impressive personal narrative, it never actually gave me a little shiver to consider that such a world might one day exist. This book did. Apparently Hall took her own experience of living through the floods a few years back and took her inspiring from that direct a source. I think you can feel that in this work. It feels real. It makes you wonder just how far we are away from some of the things portrayed in her book if we were to have an even bigger natural disaster strike.
Hall doesn't bang you over the head with the feminine themes of this book. You can read it as it is and have an enjoyable time, or you could also take things further can consider the myriad of issues that her depiction of the settlement women bring up. What are females really capable of? Left on their own, do they form a more productive, peaceful society or do they have the same proclivities towards violence that is more often associated with men? Is there anything that is intrinsically female other than childbirth? At what point does one have to decide to fight for their civil liberties?
The one criticism that I'll give it is Hall uses a structure for the telling of her story that cheats at times. From the very first page, it's obviously a report of a person that has been incarcerated and along the way, various bits of the report are 'corrupted'. In other words, the narrative skips forward. But strangely enough, though we are supposed to have missed certain parts of the story, the narrator seems to have anticipated this and at times, tells the story as if she knows that the parts were missing - a complete impossibility. It also enables Hall to do some serious fast forwarding towards the end of the book, something that felt perhaps a little bit of a cop-out. I don't suppose themes like this will ever have neatly wrapped up endings, but I think she could have done a little bit better with a tad more effort.
One other thing to mention - the book is quite short. I'm not sure about the exact size but I would have said that it's very nearly a novella. Not a bad thing - but I read this easily in two nights of reading.
3 and a half stars out of 5
And I'm off to buy Hall's other book.