The first volume of Louise Welsh’s Plague Trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn, is set in contemporary London. The apocalypse is just beginning, arriving in the form of a virus known as The Sweats. People are falling like flies and only a very few survive.
Stevie Flint is one such. You can imagine how interesting this makes her to the medical community, which she spends much of the novel avoiding because she is investigating the suspicious death of her boyfriend, the paediatric surgeon, Simon Sharkey. It appears that Simon has died of sudden adult death syndrome, a hypothesis that is called into question when Stevie inherits a laptop with explicit instructions to deliver to a named colleague – no substitutes accepted.
She arrives at the hospital to find her contact dead of the sweats, but other colleagues far too keen to take the hardware from her, and detain her for medical research purposes. Her suspicions aroused, she flees and her life becomes the stuff of nightmares. Not only on a personal level, as she tries to keep ahead of those now pursuing her and resolve the mystery of her boyfriend’s death but also because she finds herself in the midst of a disintegrating society. It was this aspect that I found so compelling.
At first this pandemic seems like a severe flu – a number of deaths are inevitable. It soon dawns though that most people die – only a very few have survivor’s immunity. Fear and panic spread and society begins to break down. As this happens, normal and dystopian realities run in parallel, and, in a blink of an eye an individual can switch between them.
… 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 by-your-leave.
Still it is a world in which a woman of Stevie’s resourcefulness can prevail, and while she may resolve the mystery of Simon’s death, it’s not without sacrifice. More on that in Max Cairnduff’s review. The question I want to answer is what happens next, and from the viewpoint of Clare Morrall’s When The Floods Came.
Assume for a moment tha The Sweats is the same as Hoffman’s – the virus in Morall’s novel. (We can because Morrall doesn’t detail the symptoms – she’s more interested in what comes after.) Stevie, if she were a character in this novel would probably be esconsed with the majority of survivors in Brighton. The big cities, including London, are now ghost areas, encircled by the barriers that prevented their populations escaping certain death.
Other survivors, like the Polanskis, live in isolation so complete that Roza, at 22, hasn’t met anyone her own age for twenty years. Their only connection with the outside world is through the internet with the survivors in Brighton and occasional clues that others pass through their vicinity. They live in a block of flats, beyond the barriers around Birmingham, with their domestic animals on the top floor. These cannot graze outside because of the hostile environment. The floods are now so severe that life outside is impossible during the winter months and dangerous, due to flash flooding, at all other times.
For twenty years the Polanskis have been self-sufficient, but things are about to change. The law states that Roza must marry by the age of 25. Those who survived Hoffman’s are rendered infertile; those with natural immunity can still conceive, so Roza must do her duty for the country. She has recently become engaged to Henry and will soon leave the family home for Brighton.
But change has a way of accelerating beyond our control and the out-of-the-blue arrival of Aashay is the catalyst for that. It’s clear he has been watching the family for some time – he knows them all by name. Does he harbour malicious intent or is he simply seeking a family to belong to? He’s certainly full of charm, and, despite their initial doubts, he is accepted into Roza’s family. As well as playing havoc with Roza’s hormones, he opens the eyes of the younger Polanskis to life outwith their solitary existence, to an alternative lifestyle. (There are more survivors than the Polanskis are aware of.) He persuades them to attend a fair, and that day out heralds an ominous unravelling. The dangerous secret at the bosom of Roza’s family is about to revealed to the outside world.
At her recent AyeWrite! event Morrall explained that the novel’s genesis came with an eerie image of an empty Spaghetti Junction (a huge tangle of interconnecting motorways – and traffic jams – just outside Birmingham). From that image she builds up a feasible world and hypothesis, so that by the time we stand on the empty junction with Rosa and her family, it feels entirely natural. The injection of pre-Hoffman’s nursery rhymes serves as an anchor to the past, and, as Morrall say, adds beat, rhythm to the text. There’s subtlety in the characterisation too, particularly of Aashay. A subliminal message is sent when Roza encounters Jacob Eppstein’s Lucifer during a surreptitious visit to the abandoned Birmingham Art Gallery. Is this charmer really a devil in disguise? We can never be sure, not until the end anyway, and even then, we can’t be sure that the ending for the Polanskis is entirely positive. Morrall playing with ambivalence for all its worth.
There’s no equivalent ambivalence in A Lovely Way to Burn. Not that I’m criticising. Welsh is writing a genre novel for a different audience. Thrillers are about pace, mystery, resolution. Welsh delivers all three. The apocalyptic reality serves as a backdrop, it’s not the central theme as in Morall. Therefore the brushstokes are broader, but as I pointed out earlier, effective none the less. The same applies to the characterisation. Welsh gives us what we need to know for the sake of the plot. Yet, while the pace is manic, and the population is being decimated by the thousand, a focus on the emotional devastation caused by the death of Stevie’s friend Joanie highlights the human cost that each fatality represents.
Like a good bottle of Vin de Pays glugged down quickly, I read all 369 pages of A Lovely Way to Burn during a 4-hour flight. I raced through it, and that’s what I expect from a thriller. I’ll happily read the second in the trilogy. When The Floods Came, with its meticulous attention to detail took me longer. It had to be drunk slowly to appreciate its complexity, like an excellent Grand Vin.
Which do I prefer – Vin de Pays / Crime Fiction or Grand Vin / Literary Fiction? There’s room in my drinking / reading life for both. 😄