Beautifully written, a kind of fictional memoir, Burntcoat takes place in England and begins with the traumatic episode when young Edith Harkness's mother Naomi suffers a severe stroke. The mother Edith had known is gone and in her place a damaged woman who struggles with regaining sensible speech. Her father eventually leaves, and eight-year-old Edith becomes interpreter and caretaker for Naomi as she recovers.
As Edith, nearing sixty and terminally ill, looks back over her life she relates the close bond with her mother, her training and success as a sculptor of large creations of burnt wood using the Japanese shou sugi ban technique, and the arrival and aftermath of a Covid-like pandemic much worse than the Covid we know.
The novel moves back and forth in time as Edith reviews the events in her life. When the swift and deadly AG3 virus begins its catastrophic death toll on an unprepared England, Edith and her new lover Halit try to ride out the lockdown at Burntcoat, which is both home and studio for Edith.
There is much to like in Burntcoat, with the exception of the gratuitous sex scenes. Yes, sex would be a light in the darkness, the closeness people need when threatened by events beyond their control. There is a purpose for including the intimacy of Edith and Halit's relationship and of sex as a means of escape from the horror. But...no, the inclusion of the graphic sexual episodes did not work for me. Awkward, uncomfortable, and unnecessary.
The book is uncomfortable in several ways, but the discomfort is the kind that would be natural in the face of some of the events in Edith's life--her mother's stroke and long recovery, in the physical and emotional hardships of lockdown, and in the fear and horror experienced as people, locally and nationally, die in huge numbers--one million in England alone.
Not a book to easily forget, but one that is hard to evaluate. Even as Edith recounts the important events in her life, she remains distant, removed from her own story. The distance is understandable, and perhaps, inevitable.
read in August; blog review scheduled for Oct. 7, 2021
Nov. 2, 2021. Print length: 304 pages.