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One thing you'll not hear said of Louise Welsh's fiction is "the mixture as before." Consider the occupations of the protagonists (all male) of the first four of her five suspense novels - an art dealer, a major Elizabethan playwright, a "mentalist" on the burlesque circuit, and a literary scholar. The fifth, THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS, does have a female protagonist, a lesbian isolated in a foreign city awaiting the birth of her first child. All are standalones. In the present novel, Welsh is once again trying something new. A LOVELY WAY TO BURN is the first in a projected trilogy, sent neither in the present nor the past but in the near future, and combines a dystopian disaster setting with a murder mystery.
The protagonist is Stevie (Stephanie) Flint, a presenter on a shopping channel, who, as the story opens, is leading a pleasant life. She has a job that, while not all she would like, still pays the bills. She has a boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a surgeon, who takes considerable pleasure in spending large sums of money on high-end consumer goods of all sorts. Tellingly, he lives in a former council high-rise, converted into luxury flats. It affords sweeping views, especially of the newer London landmarks. The first hint that Stevie has that her life is about to undergo a change for the worse appears when Simon fails to appear for their dinner date, leaving her alone at the table, an object of pity. When days pass with neither text nor phone call from Simon, Stevie decides to head to his flat, retrieve her belongings, and cut her losses. But what she finds is Simon's slowly decomposing corpse.
The discovery is of course a dreadful shock and Stevie assumes that is why she becomes violently ill. But she is in fact an early sufferer from a new and deadly virus that is about to sweep the globe. Few survive it and Stevie is one of them. But the world she returns to is not the world she left, though only a few days have passed. It is one in which the standard conventions and restraints are crumbling, leaving those still alive to try to figure out a way to cope with a dying civilization.
Simon has left Stevie with a charge, to deliver his laptop to a colleague and to no one else. This made sense in the pre-plague time but might no longer matter very much. Nevertheless, Stevie, knowing that Simon did not succumb to the epidemic but was murdered, decides that she can best remain sane by trying to find out what was so important that the surgeon was killed to suppress it.
The quest takes her on a nightmare journey to the suburbs, where neighbourhood groups are trying to protect themselves from infection by enforcing quarantines, along highways patrolled by the army for no particularly clear reason save that's what the army does in an emergency, to St Thomas hospital, which has become simply a morgue, and finally back out again to confront Simon's killer.
In a way, A LOVELY WAY TO BURN conforms quite closely to the tropes of the post-apocalypse. There is the lone but resourceful protagonist, the journey through horrors, the transformation of familiar locales by the overwhelming fact of mass death, the nagging fear that nothing described is impossible, is indeed, far too likely. But two things make this book one not to miss. The first is the character of Stevie. She is smart, though not brilliant, far from fearless but still determined, apparently the last sane person in a world in collapse. Unlike the typical hero of survivalist fiction, willing to perform any atrocity in order to stay alive, Stevie is committed to retaining her normal moral balance. If we have to visit apocalypse, she is just the person we want to do it with.
The second is the quality of the prose. Louise Welsh writes extraordinarily well. Early in the story, Stevie takes the Underground. Looking about, she sees nothing unusual - after all, the lighting in the carriages does little for anyone's complexion. She thinks about all the deaths that have taken place on the Underground, from the workers who died digging the tunnels, to the suicides drawn irresistibly to the tracks, to the terrorist bombings, the King's Cross fire, memories of which Londoners daily ignore in order to get to work. "Londoners were the blood of the city and the city went on, regardless of the Black Death, the Great Fire, the Blitz, and terrorist bombings. It was only occasionally, when the train stopped between stations, that passengers caught each other's eye and wondered if their luck had run out." By the time she reaches her destination, it is clear that it has.
In general, I am not enthusiastic about apocalyptic fiction, which strikes me too often as having a political sub-text that only the NRA could love. But A LOVELY WAY TO BURN had me from the beginning and I did not want to put it down. Incidentally, it has perhaps the most intriguing prologue I have ever read, one that points forward to the subsequent novels in the trilogy. I plan to put them on order as soon as they are announced.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2014
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