The coronavirus variations

Here are three of our most praised writers with new offerings written during one or more lockdowns and that also take in the pandemic in their subject matter

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I warned you last month that Covid-related fiction was on the way, and here it comes already. In some ways, writers may have had an easier lockdown than everyone else — Kazuo Ishiguro said it “validated the way I normally exist.” After all, as Martin Amis pointed out, writers are “most alive when alone” — the corollary of this being that “they make living hard to do for those around them.”

Here then are three of our most praised writers, with new offerings that not only were written during one or more lockdowns (their compact length attests to that), but also take in the pandemic in their subject matter. But are the results superstrong strains of fiction, or zombie mutations?

Sarah Hall is probably the best short story writer in Britain: the only person to win the BBC National Short Story Award twice — for two corkers, “Mrs Fox” and “The Grotesques” — and she’s been shortlisted for it more than anyone else too. She’s also a novelist, though given that three of her last four books were collections of stories, and that the one that wasn’t (The Wolf Border) was disappointing, it seems clear where her focus lies.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, £12.99)

It may be surprising then that her Covid-inspired offering is a novel, Burntcoat. Or not, since at times it reads like a number of story ideas smooshed together into one choppy narrative. Hall prefers to write the world at an angle, as seen in stories like the semi-fantasy “M” or the SF-ish “Orton” (both in the collection Sudden Traveller), and accordingly the pandemic in this novel is not Covid but “novavirus.”

We initially learn little about the disease — we’re in medias res, do-your-own-homework, Golding-style fiction — except that our narrator, artist Edith Harkness, is a survivor, with just a few hints about what that means: “fifty-nine is old for carriers.”

With the tantalising done, Hall goes back to the past — usually the last narrative refuge of the scoundrel, but let’s see — and we learn about her mother Naomi, a writer who suffered a blood clot on her brain and was reduced to a childlike status. “When I was eight, my mother died and Naomi arrived.” But she recovers, up to a point, and Edith moves in with her.

At times it reads like a number of story ideas smooshed together into one choppy narrative

What does all this have to do with the novavirus? It’s all in the line Edith writes about her mother: “they saved her life; they could not save her self.” Hall wants us to see the distinction between the person and the body; for her, the body is not just a container for the person but a distinct entity, directing the mind as much as the mind directs it.

We get much more of this in the other story that dominates Burntcoat. The title, by the way, comes from the name of Edith’s studio but also a technique she learns from Japanese artist Shun, of sealing wood by burning it, the nod-wink descriptions of which — “damaging the wood to protect it”, “I learned to destroy to create” — are a bit on-the-nose in a story about bodily suffering, healing and transformation.

The other story is of Edith’s relationship with Turkish lover Halit, which provides Hall with two opportunities. The first is to deliver some of the sex writing for which she has few peers — “we worked together like skinned machinery” — including a dog-roleplay scene culminating in what I can only coin as canilingus. The second is that it foregrounds the virus — as life becomes more complicated, the story becomes simpler — and turns what had been at times a frustratingly disparate narrative into a page-turning horror show. (In a very Hall-ian moment, the reason we know the virus has taken hold is when Edith and Halit are forced to abandon a good fuck.)

Again the body is foregrounded, not with sex but with suffering, so that even a headache is “intimate”. As with Naomi, Edith sees in Halit how a broken body can effectively create a different person, and Hall’s scabrous version of nature writing is at its best when describing how the virus, leaping from wild dog to human, “perfected itself for us”.

But I’m not quite decided whether the final third of the book is so strong that it pulls the rest along, or highlights how the varied elements in the rest of the book don’t quite tessellate. Perhaps I should listen to Edith’s artistic mentor Shun, who tells her, “Be ready to accept both states together. They are not opposites. You’ll see!”

Their names may be similar, but Sarah Moss’s approach to writing the pandemic could not be more different than Hall’s. (Moss, as elderly readers will recall from my review of Summerwater last year, is a much-praised writer who has yet to win a major award. She will have to make do with the unique accolade of being the first author to be covered twice in this column.)

The Fell by Sarah Moss (Picador, £14.99)

With The Fell, Moss, unlike Hall, tells it straight. We are in recognisable England — the Peak District — in late 2020, as the second (or was it third?) Covid lockdown bites. The structure is similar to Summerwater, with short chapters cycling between the characters, but this time the cast is much smaller: 40-year-old Kate and her 16-year-old son Matt, who are self-isolating due to contact with a positive case; elderly neighbour Alice, who’s shielding during the pandemic, and her daughter Susie; and Rob, whose role it would be a bit spoilerish to reveal.

Kate is the moral centre of the book, and the slight plot centres on her decision to reject the stay-at-home message and go for a walk up the local fell. “She doesn’t disapprove of lockdowns or masks or any of it, not on principle, only the longer this goes on the less she objects to dying.”

Ultimately, it feels like a treading of water while we await the next Sarah Moss novel

This sets up mild conflict, with her son Matt not knowing where she’s gone, and Alice spotting her leaving and deciding what to do with the information (Susie wants Alice to report Kate: “there’s a special hotline you can call”), all leading to a pleasant tension in the second half of the book.

Through this, each character reflects on their situation and how they got there: Kate’s husband’s affair, which she should have seen coming (“nobody gets less annoying with time”); Alice’s shoplifting past; Rob’s work-life conflict. And those examples, together with the adjectives I used earlier (slight, mild, pleasant), may make clear to you that this is a somewhat underpowered work from such a reliable writer.

There’s nothing wrong with it exactly, and it contains some useful reflections on the risks of lockdowns (“it’s not that folk turn nice when you lock them up, when you can’t see what they’re doing to each other”) and a message on the importance of human contact. But ultimately it feels like a treading of water while we await the next Sarah Moss novel, which is not something you ever want to think about a Sarah Moss novel.

Roddy Doyle’s Life Without Children is so good you wonder why he hasn’t dedicated more of his writing life to short stories — he’s published just two collections before this in a 34-year-career. If literature were a competition — if! — then this book would have the advantage of Sarahs Hall and Moss because telling ten stories immediately confers a coverage and layering that only the greatest novels can compete with.

Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

The stories mostly feature middle-aged — Doyle-aged — men from Dublin, experiencing a crisis precipitated by the descent of Covid and the lockdown. Sam in ‘Box Sets’ has lost his job. “Someone had asked him what he did and he hadn’t been able to answer — not a word.” Another man feels time is frozen, feels “safe inside the curfew” as he wonders whether to tell his wife he has coronary artery disease, aka “widow’s block”. “He had the widow’s block and she was going to be the widow.”

Others are consumed — assailed — by memories. “The lockdown has ripped away the padding.” Mick in “The Charger” recalls his father’s death, “the hole that never filled again,” and Doyle’s writing is so tight and succinct that this 40-page story has the capacity of a short novel. In perhaps the cleverest story, “Worm”, a man starts hearing snatches of old songs, which leads via Zoomed hospital visits to a striking comic and sentimental — in a good way — payoff.

Doyle’s is the book among the three here that feels most like a first draft of history

Doyle is averse to lyrical writing — “do keep a thesaurus,” he said once in advice to writers, “but in a shed at the back of the garden” — but still finds the mot juste in common language: a baby’s legs “hopping” in excitement as her father carries her in a harness.

There’s a realistic cynicism towards the political class — when the prime minister announces the opening up of the country, “the phrase he used — a meaningful Christmas — felt more insidious than any virus” — but the focus is always on the human experience. Doyle’s is the book among the three here that feels most like a first draft of history, reporting with wit and emotion the losses the virus invoked, and all the things we did, and all the things we couldn’t.

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