Do we have a resilience for rapidly changing events? No one has any idea what will be our fate in the coming global crises, and we face an endless succession of new challenges, from hacking to climate change to bioterrorism. As Sarah Hall, whose debut novel, “Burntcoat,” is about to be published in the U.S., asks her new readers, “Would you have the courage to write this novel if you knew you’d be reading it in 15, 20, 30 years? Would you have the courage to be in your kitchen baking a cake before that happened? You would be living in an uncertain future, but living in the here and now. You would see the possibility of survival.”
“Burntcoat” follows two sisters, one studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and the other teaching in a classroom in small town Maryland. In February of 2013, Sandy Hook happened. The book begins with the candidates for the New Hampshire primary and, from there, extends the events over 20 years, from the post-Cold War refugee crisis in Germany to the explosion of chaos and famine that followed the Arab Spring. The novel reaches its climax with an event that sounds like a bomb dropped on Washington but takes place in small-town America, playing out between law students meeting up at a party and a teenage Iraqi woman and an American student who strike up a friendship in an Afghan refugee camp. In May of 2016, after President Trump’s election, the book’s time jump brings us back to an early gathering of college women’s groups in Maryland, at which one of the organizers asks another, “What about the miseries?” From this, we are asked, “Were you afraid of what, beyond the miseries, this novel would represent for you?”
“Yes, you were,” the unnamed narrator says, “most of the time.” The narrator understands that getting as close to reality as possible while still spinning the overall narrative of her novel is always a risk; that is why she preferred dealing with her characters’ daily lives. She is still haunted by the plot twist in “Burntcoat” that, she insists, “never made sense.”
“Burntcoat” is both utterly engrossing and distinctly frustrating. Sarah Hall has not one but two agenda: She wants to put it on the fictional map while at the same time being conscious that events can always rip the rug out from under a story. As a result, the novel – particularly the first half – grows monotonous as the reader waits for her characters to look at each other, interact, make decisions.
Readers are drawn to a plot twist that would have pleased the novelist no end. What’s more, Hall is both nonchalant and malicious in her teasing postscripts, teases that kill the plot’s momentum. (Her penchant for tipping her hands is almost as annoying as the hint that her heroine might be a bisexual doppelganger for a porn star whose memoir was released this year.) Still, given the overall unpredictability of the world, writers must be prepared to put their characters through the mill and have them survive. As Hall says in her “Five Stories” at the end of the novel, “Some of them are great books. This is not one of them.”