A Lovely Way To Burn (20 March 2014) by Louise Welsh
When I first heard about A Lovely Way To Burn, I wasn't sure I would enjoy it. I'm aware of Louise Welsh's talent - although I've only read one of
her previous books, The Girl on the Stairs, it was good enough to leave a lasting impression on me, and despite my total failure to get round to
reading anything else by the author, I've heard a lot of praise for her other novels from various sources I respect. My apprehension was more to do with
the fact that a dystopian crime thriller that's the first of a series (this is the start of a trilogy titled Plague Times) didn't really sound like my sort of thing.
More fool me, then, because this was one of the most exciting, original books of the year so far.
I mentioned above that this is a dystopian tale, but you won't immediately identify it as fantasy - it's set in what initially appears to be a very normal version
of present-day London. The book's unlikely heroine is Stevie Flint, a former journalist turned presenter on a trashy TV shopping channel. Stevie prefers the
gritty reality of journalism, but her good looks and ease in front of the camera have helped to make the presenting job an easy, and lucrative, option. This
also helps to explain why she's dating Simon Sharkey, a somewhat flashy doctor with a taste for the more extravagant things in life. That is, until Simon fails
to turn up for their latest date. Stevie writes off his no-show as a coward's way of finishing their relationship, but can't help paying one last visit to his flat
on the pretext of picking up some of her belongings. There, she makes a discovery that changes everything: Simon is dead.
Stevie is traumatised by this shock, but has little time to dwell on it before she succumbs to a terrible, feverish illness. Holed up in her flat for days, she
barely survives, and when she does recover, the world outside is much changed. The virus - nicknamed 'the sweats' by the public and the media - has
swept the city, causing so many deaths that it seems miraculous for Stevie to have survived without medical help. Then she's given a letter Simon wrote her
before his death, in which he instructs her to deliver a hidden laptop to one of his colleagues - and makes it clear nobody but this particular man can be
trusted. The stage is set for the two major threads of the plot: the widespread devastation wreaked by the pandemic, and Stevie's pursuit of her suspicion
that Simon was murdered. As London falls into disarray, Stevie is increasingly isolated - the police are in a state of chaos and disinterested in the
circumstances of Simon's demise; as the strapline on the cover says, 'it doesn't look like murder in a city full of death'. (For the purposes of this novel,
London is the world: we never hear about whether the rest of the country is suffering as badly as the capital, or whether the sweats has spread outside
the UK. Perhaps these are questions that will be answered in later installments of the trilogy.)
An argument could be made that A Lovely Way To Burn is a feminist novel - although I have a feeling Stevie herself wouldn't like being called a
feminist. She is the protagonist and leads the story and the action, but she is also the only female character who survives longer than a few pages. Once
the sweats really hit, all the characters who successfully manage to avoid the virus are men. Stevie constantly comes up against male characters
who treat her with suspicion and contempt, whether they're leering at her, dismissing her as weak, or putting on frightening displays of their superior
physical strength. She makes a number of alliances throughout the novel, but these - and by 'these', I mean both the alliances and the people - never last
long: ultimately, it is very clear that Stevie is on her own and can't trust anyone else to protect her. Her femininity is both her most valuable asset and her
biggest liability; in the end she rejects it, mindful of the need to disguise herself and become invisible. She also appears to be the only person in London to
have had the sweats and lived - a fact that's tantalisingly dangled in front of the reader a number of times without the narrative properly exploring it,
perhaps another hint of things to come in the remainder of the trilogy.
If I had one criticism, it would be that Stevie's commitment to her quest for the truth sometimes seems a bit too convenient. Her relationship with
Simon wasn't serious (her recollections frequently make it obvious that it was mainly about sex), so is it really believable that she would keep chasing
answers through life-threatening danger, rather than choosing to place herself out of harm's way? It helps here to remember that she's an ex-journalist: I
find it more plausible that she'd be determined to tie up the loose ends of an unfinished story, as opposed to avenging a guy who, despite their
involvement, she didn't really know very well at all.
The vivid, often surreal quality of the writing here has the feel of a TV series or film - it's so easy to envision on screen, it'll surely be adapted quickly. It's
like 28 Days Later meets Black Swan (I can see that quote on the posters already...) Welsh's atmospheric depiction of Berlin was a major strength of
The Girl on the Stairs, and her London is similarly lucid - vibrant and repulsive in equal measures (though the latter quality increases somewhat as
the story progresses). A Lovely Way To Burn is suitably fast-paced, action-packed and tense, and while there is a conventional thriller-type
storyline to give the book wider appeal and hold the attention of even the most casual reader, it's full of strange, intriguing undercurrents. Although this is
the start of a series, it's wrapped up properly at the end and doesn't feel unsatisfying; yet there are still enough points of interest to make the second
installment a very exciting prospect indeed.
I received an advance review copy of A Lovely Way To Burn from the publisher through NetGalley.
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