In Sarah Hall’s sixth novel, Edith Harkness is an acclaimed sculptor who specialises in large and often discomforting works of public art. The piece that made her name is a 40ft witch nicknamed Hecky which looms “high as a church tower” over a motorway, variously terrifying and delighting passing motorists. Edith lives in a vast, once-derelict warehouse in the north of England named Burntcoat, where she is creating a memorial to the millions who have died from a deadly virus.
This pandemic-themed book is set not in Covid times but in a fictionalised future that comes with echoes of our present. It is read by actor Louise Brealey, whose tone of melancholy and longing reflects the stress and increasing otherworldliness of Hall’s prose. The narrative shifts back and forth, depicting Edith’s lockdown, much of which is spent in the throes of ecstasy with a new lover, Halit, and a research trip to Japan where, courtesy of an instructor named Shun, she learns an ancient technique of strengthening wood by burning it.
Most significantly, we go back to Edith’s childhood when her mother, Naomi, suffers a brain haemorrhage that leaves her permanently altered. Unable to cope, Edith’s father leaves the family and mother and daughter are left to navigate their new reality by themselves, swapping their city home for a remote moorland cottage where they “[grow] around each other like vines”. Vividly written and read, Burntcoat expertly captures the introspection of life in lockdown while providing remarkable ruminations on sexuality, creativity and the legacy we leave behind.
• Burntcoat is available from Faber, 6hr 7min
Stephen Fry, Penguin Audio, 15hr 25min
Greek myths re-told for a modern audience, read with liveliness and charm by the author.
F*** You Cancer
Deborah James, Random House Audiobooks, 5hr 35min
The late journalist, podcaster and campaigner reads her book in which she breaks taboos around cancer, from symptoms and diagnosis to coping with family and friends.