Michelle’s commentary on books, digital publishing and intersections between fiction & reality

Reading “Burntcoat” in Viennese cafés

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The Book: Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

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5/5 stars

*No spoilers

This is the kind of book that’s difficult to put into words—to reduce its story to a few meager sentences doesn’t feel right. Though it is a shorter book, able to be read in just a few hours, it covers a multitude of themes and does each one justice.

Ruth Gilligan from The Independent does as good of a job as any summing it up, so I’ll let her do the talking instead:

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‘The world doesn’t come back as it was before.’ It will take years to fully process the impact of the last 18 months; in the meantime, this staggering novel can be read in a matter of hours. It is an exquisite account of sexual intimacy, of maternal love, of our terrifying capacity for survival and our commitment to creating beauty out of the darkness.

Burntcoat was written during the COVID-19 lockdown. While I expected numerous novels to emerge with stories set in a pandemic or similar environments, it was unsettling to read this book while we are still very much in the middle of the crisis.

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For that reason, it might be off-putting to some. While Burntcoat does center around a pandemic, it’s one that’s much more severe than the one we’re living in, though many moments feel eerily similar.

But the book is about much more than a global virus. As mentioned in Gilligan’s synopsis, it’s a story of love and understanding, one of unbearable grief and heartache. It’s amazing that Hall was able to capture the essence of these feelings in such few pages.

It had a slower start, which tempted me to give it four stars rather than five, but even before I became truly invested in the plot, I was captivated by Hall’s incredible writing. I tend to dislike books written in first-person, as sometimes it can feel like a cop-out. But her writing is beautiful, it’s gorgeous, it’s the way I would want my books to sound and feel if I ever wrote one from that perspective.

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With that being said, you’ll have to bear with me as I list quite a lot of quotes—and these are just a handful of the ones I noted.

There’s not much else I want to say about the story itself. It deals with a unique mother-daughter relationship, a love that grows and strengthens when they’re forced to lockdown together, all recounted in vignettes by the main character and narrator Edith.

Favorite Quotes

  • Nothing had prepared me for the emotion I felt there, the acceptance, finding myself in tears and becoming part of the flood.
  • No generation expects its crisis, the hole that opens at the centre, dragging everything in.
  • Part of me enjoyed the crisis, I admit. There was relief, almost, in the promised worst, and I think that  being two, as we were, so dependent on each other and against the world, was like my upbringing. Artists don’t  age, no matter how serious the game they play, how fine and cunning their creations. Even now, can I say what’s real? This bed. The sky, in the window, and all its unsettled colours. This condition, so weak, so unsexual and  defenceless, a state of being that has almost passed but still is. The black, flickering door. You.
  • There’s no good way to wait for disaster. Redundancy, a hurricane, surgery—the days, the hours before are already afflicted, emptied of true productivity and slippery with fear.
  • We catch the bus on time and the sinkhole still opens. We fly, and the white, forked tongue catches the aircraft. Our only right is to live in a true world.
  • Between evidence and illusion, we are all located.

The Place: Vienna, Austria during New Years

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The first thing I do when I go to a new place is find a really cozy café, one I can do some of my work in. Unfortunately when I got to Vienna, indoor dining was closed, but it opened up by the second half of my trip and I spent a lot of my time reading in them.

I didn’t have a favorite—there are too many gorgeous Viennese cafés to pick from. But, as the contents of the book are mentioned above, it felt oddly strange yet simultaneously comforting to be reading this book about a pandemic, be transported into another environment, and then have to get up and put a mask on to leave when I was done reading.

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I wish I could’ve spent more time in Vienna—not only because the city was gorgeous but because of the great friend I made there too. We spent time making acrylic paintings to hang in her apartment, went biking on New Year’s Eve and had a delicious brunch near the end of my time there. She actually has a YouTube channel where she vlogs if you want a better vision of my time in Vienna.

In some ways Vienna felt like a cleaner, nicer, more accessible version of New York. But, I’ve only spent two weeks in New York and a little over three in Vienna, so that might be a very ignorant observation.

Regardless, I’m yet again sad to say goodbye to another place, but really looking forward to the next five weeks in Budapest. And I’m sure Jasper will be happy to stay somewhere a little more permanent again.

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Michelle Newblom
About the Author

Michelle works on LexBlog’s Publishing team as the Editor and assists in managing and creating the company’s editorial and social content, as well as working with clients to ensure the overall success of their blogs. She has experience working in all different realms of publishing—including newspapers, magazines and research journals. 

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