Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

This is a fabulous book. I really enjoyed it. Enjoyment is an odd feeling for a novel that deals so interestingly with illness, remission and loss, but it is a thoroughly engaging read. I didn’t expect to enjoy reading about a pandemic—different to Covid but nevertheless it feels like a response to it—because it still feels too soon somehow to get a grasp on how such a global sickness might ripple on into the everyday, but Sarah Hall handles it cleverly. The pandemic of Burntcoat is part and parcel of the whole of the novel, all of Edith’s experience of life and her telling of it.

Just to warn you… there a few spoilers in this review. I tried to keep them out, but it’s tricky to write about this book without them. Look away now if that worries you. Short review is it’s a great read with wonderful intertwining and amassing themes.

Edith is a middle-aged successful artist who creates huge sculptures, not unlike the Angel of the North, but made of wood and burned in a Japanese heat treatment that marks and strengthens the wood, adding to its durability and beauty as an organic, but carefully damaged material. There too, you feel the echoes of the themes of damage and illness as things that can create something different but also stronger and sometimes more beautiful.

She is the daughter of a writer, Naomi, who suffered a brain hemorrhage and was saved by radical surgery that meant she had to relearn everything from walking to talking and writing. Her damaged self was too much for Edith’s father who left them both when Edith refused to leave with him. Edith chose to stay with the woman who needed so much of her help to cope.

Naomi is one of the yous to which the narrative is written. This second person is deliberately slippery. Edith is dying. She is tying the pieces of her life up and she is saying goodbye. 

One of the other yous—for undoubtedly the reader is implicated too—is the man she fell for right before the pandemic took hold. A restaurant owner and chef, he moved in with her during isolation. I will say no more about him, as he and their relationship comes so wonderfully to life that I don’t want to spoil it by saying more. Let’s just say that again, this novel explores how brevity and fragility are often important parts of a different kind of immortal beauty. Her lover comes from a family of emigrants and he describes himself as a mix, a wonderful whole that has grown with and from division and loss.

It is this richness of themes and ideas, this thematic coherence, that makes Burntcoat such a pleasure to read. The story is a fascinating one but how all of these concepts, of what it means to be human and to live with mutability, damage, loss and regeneration, work together across the whole is a delight. It’s a brilliant novel. I finished reading it and turned back to the beginning right away. I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t make the prize lists. Oh, and it is published tomorrow so get your mitts on it now!

My next review will be of Seesaw by Timothy Ogene.

Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

From the writer of ​​hit TV shows Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto reads like an extension of Michaela Coel’s dramatic work. Stories, thoughts and ideas expressed through her dark comedy onscreen unfurl on the written page.

We follow her progress from the streets of Tower Hamlets onto the world stage. We watch her fear of moths turn into a tool for self-development, a love of everyone who doesn’t fit, who can challenge the strictures society puts on those who, for whatever reason, don’t sit neatly in the hegemony. These are the people who will bring new ideas and creativity, who will shake up the staid and unthinking herd, who will give voice to the silenced. 

It’s a fun, provocative and quick read. If you love her television work, you’ll love her manifesto. I’m reading Burntcoat by Sarah Hall next.

Why I review books

I’ve been blogging about books for a number of years now and at the moment I feel as if the ability to crush complex stories, to evaluate other people’s years of effort in shaping their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs, novels, essays, memoirs, arguments, is failing me, is something I should perhaps not even be undertaking. It feels important to stand back and ask myself why I do this and what it means to me to review a book and share it, even if that sharing reaches a very small number of readers.

At the heart of all of this is my love of reading and my love of stories. I enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts. I like seeing characters’ lives and choices take shape into a story that seems to make some sense out of the repetition, uncertainty and confusion of our lives. I want to know what other people think about those big questions we love so much as teenagers: what does it mean to be alive? To be human? Are we and our planet some big godly intention or a chaotic creation whose meaning exists only in its miraculous, fleeting existence and nothing more? Is there such a thing as morality, good and bad actions, and for whose good or bad should we act? You know the questions. 

Why turn to stories for these questions? Why not science or philosophy or religion? Because all of those also use stories, because it is a way for us to hold disparate events, ideas and people in some kind of broad comparative lens. Philosophy tends to forget the multiple layers of consciousness and unconsciousness that sit in our awareness of our beings as bodies. It forgets that a person thinking about how words shape meaning is also tired from an old, worn out mattress and the pressures of living with someone they no longer love and not having had breakfast yet. Science tries to pretend nothing exists that isn’t logical. We all experience that to not be true. Religion often has its own agenda that refuses to welcome ideas that don’t fit within the remit of its tenets of faith.

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

This is George Saunders’ master class on the short story, writing and reading, through the analysis of seven classic Russian short stories. The book is based on a class he teaches at Syracuse University and it offers writers and interested readers alike an unpretentious exploration of that beautiful and fascinating connection between the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.

There is nothing particularly surprising about what George Saunders writes about the process, but it is delightful to explore these stories alongside an intelligent and attentive mind, encouraging the reader to pay as much attention as he does and showing how essential that meticulous attention really is to the process of writing, reading and generally existing in the world as a human striving to understand others and the world around us. 

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Wahala by Nikki May

Ronke, Boo and Simi are best friends. All British-Nigerians, they met at university and bonded over their shared mixed heritage. Though they all live in London, they lead very different lives: Ronke is a dentist with her own practice and a habit of picking boyfriends who exploit her; Boo is married to a Frenchman and is struggling with the challenges of parenting her young daughter; Simi is happily married and a fashion marketing exec. whose husband wants to start a family. They have their challenges, but they also have each other.

Then Simi’s old friend from Lagos returns to London. Isobel is beautiful and rich. With her arrival everything changes.

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The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

The Gospel According to Cane is the journal of Beverley Cottrell, a woman in her mid-forties who used to have everything until her son was abducted. I don’t want to say too much about it because Beverley holds back. She says she isn’t telling a chronological story but the truth and it is true that the novel is about much more than the pain of losing one child, it is about the loss of generations of children left disaffected by the education system, cast aside by society through racism and stereotyping.

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The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman, trans. by Elizabeth Göksel

The Silence of Scheherazade is a story narrated by a woman found passed out, burnt, covered in ashes, in the garden of a Turkish colonel in Smyrna. She is beautiful and silent. She brings with her unspoken stories of her past, of her people’s past, of her city’s past. Her saviours call her Scheherazade.

At Scheherazade’s birth, Smyrna, an ancient cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire, filled with people of different heritages, Greek, Levantine, Turkish, Armenian, French, British, American and Indian, is about to undergo huge change as the power of the Ottoman Empire wanes and European forces fight over the spoils. Scheherazade’s story follows the shifts in power, dipping in and out of different families and peoples, exploring her own heritage and that of her city.

Unlocking her personal history gives voice to the silent masses who died in the war for supremacy over Smyrna. Defne Suman quotes J. M. Coetzee at the beginning of the novel: ‘Many stories can be told of Friday’s tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.’ The Silence of Scheherazade is her way of giving Friday a voice.

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The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin

The Giant Dark begins with the particular obsession of devoted music fans. We all know the type. They’re the people who form #freebritney, who feel a personal connection to a world-wide name, who truly are die-hard fans.

The theme of obsession runs deeper of course. Aida, the famous singer and musician, is also obsessed; obsessed with an ex-boyfriend, Ehsan, who provides all the inspiration for her music. And Ehsan too, it seems, is obsessed, but we’re never quite sure what with.

Years after breaking up, these two are brought together at a mutual friend’s dinner party and something new begins.

Just when you think you are getting a handle on this book, it twists into new territory. Neither Aida nor Ehsan feel that they fit in. Ehsan is Pakistani living in London and pursuing poetry and publishing against his father’s wishes. Aida is American, though of North Indian heritage, pushed by her mother into singing lessons and hard-work when her friends are out socialising and dating. Neither seems to feel comfortable in their lives. Both have formidable talent. Aida blooms into a rock star. Ehsan becomes an award winning poet.

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Matrix by Lauren Groff

Twelfth century France, Marie, a seventeen-year-old royal bastard and recent orphan, travels to the court of the magnificent Queen Eleanor. But Marie de France is tall, energetic, clever, willful and considered to be manly. She does not fit at court and Queen Eleanor soon sends her off to England to become a prioress of a nunnery despite having shown no previous piety, or deep religious interest. 

Marie feels abandoned. She loves Queen Eleanor and England is cold, the nunnery on the brink of famine. No one there expects anything of her. They are wrong.

A wonderfully rich novel filled with the female religious fervour and creativity of hagiographies and Marie’s own publication of poems (the real Marie de France published twelve short narrative verses about courtly love), Matrix is also about power and desire. 

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