Wednesday 13 November 2019

Scary, shocking and touching view of an apocalypse

Fiction: A Lovely Way to Burn, Louise Welsh, John Murray, £12.99, hardback, 368 pages

Louise Welsh
Louise Welsh
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

A spectacularly successful first book can be something of a double-edged sword for a writer, and there have been few greater successes than The Cutting Room, Louise Welsh's tale of Rilke, a gay auctioneer, who stumbles on a stash of snuff pornography. But Welsh followed it up with four more highly acclaimed novels, all in her inimitable fusion of crime and literary fiction.

In her latest offering, our world is being ravaged by a flu pandemic. Death is everywhere in Welsh's London; hospitals are filling up with the dying. When TV presenter Stevie Flint is stood up on a dinner date by her boyfriend, dedicated yet slightly debauched young doctor Simon Sharkey, she assumes Simon must want to end their stuttering romance. But when she goes to his apartment to confront him, she finds him dead. Everyone thinks that Simon has died from the epidemic, but Stevie is convinced that there's a more sinister cause.

With law and order breaking down dramatically around her, Stevie finds a note from Simon asking her to give a briefcase to one of his hospital colleagues. It isn't an easy task and she's plunged into a dark underworld of medical secrets and characters that are prepared to kill in order to conceal them.

The roads out of London are gridlocked with people fleeing infection, but Stevie's search for Simon's killers takes her into the depths of the dying city. Looting gangs prowl the mean streets. We meet three rather improbable murderers: a vicar, an MP and a hedge fund manager. The action is littered with heart-wrenching moments and one character in particular that you will be gutted to see die.

We've come to expect lots of good things from Welsh, including a brilliant sense of location. She doesn't disappoint with her images of London breaking down. As ever, the writing is fluid, the dynamic taut and through the control of such small, telling moments, Welsh deftly breathes life into her characters. Only an accomplished writer knows exactly when to let her reader fill in the gaps. Stevie is a gutsy, gripping protagonist, beautifully drawn.

From Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to Max Brooks' World War Z, fiction writers have vied with each other trying to imagine quite how bad things could get for us. Welsh has taken our everyday lives, given them a twist, and no supernatural manifestation of our darkest hours is any match for what real human beings can do to each other when mankind loses its humanity. This is just the first part of a trilogy.

Scary, shocking and touching by turns, this apocalyptic thriller will enthrall.

I haven't been so buried in a book in a while.

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