“What we should realize is, death comes for us all eventually.”
Louise Welsh’s novel, A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of the Plague Times Trilogy. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the book, as dystopian novels which depict a breakdown of society in a post apocalyptic world aren’t my favourite–mainly because I don’t like to think about how quickly civilization would melt down after some sort of global calamity. That said, for me, A Lovely Way to Burn was a riveting read which is primarily a crime novel set against a pandemic flu and the subsequent collapse of civilization.
It’s a hot summer, and London “had a hint of yellow to it,” but it’s not a sunny yellow, it’s a “septic” tint. The scene hints at a toxic, polluted world with dirty air, tainted water, and who knows what else. There are hints of sickness in the streets, and several people are coughing. Shopping channel hostess, Stevie Flint mingles with the crowds on her way to a date by her boyfriend of just a few months, the dashing Dr Simon Sharkey. When he doesn’t show, at first Stevie is just pissed off, and when there’s no apology or excuse forthcoming from Simon, she decides to go over to his flat, gather up the few personal belongings she left there, and drop off the keys.
Stevie finds Simon dead in bed, supposedly of natural causes, and when she goes home she vomits. When she showers, she discovers a widespread rash:
Stevie dropped her bathrobe beside the shower, and stepped naked into the spray. Her body was covered in an angry, red rash that was starting to blister. She remembered radiation victims she had glimpsed in a documentary about Japan. The stained gown lay at her feet, like a dead thing. The atomic bomb had vaporized people leaving their shadows fixed to the wall.
This is the beginning of a disease known as “the Sweats,” and Stevie is one of the early sufferers and a rare survivor. When she recovers, it’s to discover that the Sweats is ravaging London (and the rest of the world) with an ever rising death toll. Post sickness she is visited by Simon’s sister who gives Stevie a letter she found in Simon’s apartment. The letter tells Stevie that he’s hidden a laptop in her attic, and she has instructions to hand the laptop over to a work colleague and no one else….
From this point on, Stevie stubbornly pursues the truth of Simon’s death, but her quest is set against a pandemic flu, so with the police force severely undermanned, the death of one doctor is of no interest. Stevie is on her own.
Louise Welsh builds pulsing suspense with an expert hand. As Stevie tries to discover the truth, she’s swimming against the tide. Everyone is supposed to stay inside their homes in the futile hopes of avoiding infection, but Stevie travels to question people she’s never met before. The meltdown of society is swift and brutal–from people who attempt to lure Stevie from her car to the man she speeds off from when he tries to wave her down. We see society in freefall: lines of car lights at night as people flee the city, a body hanging from a railway bridge, looters, drug users unleashed at unguarded hospitals, a pub that’s taken over by drunks, whole blocks barricaded against outsiders. “The sweats is a call to all the scum of the earth to crawl out of their holes.”
Suddenly she felt as if the wakening streets around her were an illusion that might be peeled back any time, to reveal another, shadow world that could suddenly drag you under without a word of warning.
And perhaps the penultimate frightening scene: the hospital that can no longer find a place to pile the dead:
The dead were everywhere. They were slumped on waiting-room chairs, like a Tory indictment against NHS inefficiency, stretched out on beds, sprawled across desks, or lay where they had fallen, limbs tangled in positions impossible to hold in life.
I liked the character of Stevie–someone who’s relied on her looks to get things in life, and I liked the way Stevie abandoned this mechanism and instead opted for cropping her hair and donning Simon’s suit. Her looks are a way of opening doors when the book begins, but her looks lost their power as the Sweats gained hold. With death in everyone’s faces, people revert to who they ‘really’ are under the social veneer. We see selfish people, violent people, angry people, and Stevie who has survived, but may be a carrier of death, sheds that old faithful crutch of beauty and relies on her intelligence and tenacity instead.
Ultimately, Welsh shows effectively that when death stalks an entire civilisation, nothing matters anymore: not that promotion you’ve stressed about, money problems, tensions at work: all of that means nothing. Survival becomes paramount. It’s just that everyone has a different idea of how that can be achieved. And when death seems inevitable, people become single-mindedly focused on distractions: drugs, looting, booze, and isolation. It’s not a pretty scenario. The anger of one character who knows she’s going to die seems very real.
A Lovely Way to Burn was a fantastic riveting read that created an intense pandemic scenario I hope we never have to experience. This is a pageturner I finished in a day, and a book that makes my-best-of-year list.
I’ll be reading book 2: Death is a Welcome Guest soon, and book 3 No Dominion is due out next month. I took a look at the synopsis and Stevie is back in book 3.
Max’s review is here