Post-apocalyptic literature is having a bit of a moment. This is probably because you can’t call anything dystopia anymore without someone rolling their eyes, but still. Louise Welsh’s contribution to the genre is A Lovely Way to Burn, in which a flu pandemic (kind of grossly nicknamed “the sweats”) is wreaking havoc on the human race. Welsh’s tale is set in contemporary London and it’s all her heroine, Stevie Flint, can do to try and survive the descent into chaos.
The novel opens (in truly British fashion) with the Tory MP for Hove sunning himself in a deckchair in the back garden of his residence on the river Thames. He then proceeds to load up his gun and open fire on the tourists, ploughing down six holidaymakers. The scene then cuts to a hedge-fund manager for a bank, who opens fire in a crowded tube carriage on the Underground. Next a cleric goes on a killing spree. The matter-of-factness of the massacres and the mild-mannered Englishmen that carry them out are truly unsettling and it’s as good a hook for a novel as I’ve ever read.
Enter Stevie Flint, ballsy heroine and ex-journalist who works as a presenter on a low-budget shopping channel. We first meet her as she is stood up, waiting for a date with her attractive (if emotionally absent) surgeon boyfriend, Simon Sharkey. Simon doesn’t show up, but with good reason: he’s dead. With the sweats gripping London, his death is just one amongst thousands and thousands, but Stevie is convinced he didn’t die of the flu. She is sure there is something darker at play here and she is determined to find out what it is.
Not only has her boyfriend died (and possibly been murdered) but Stevie herself comes down with the killer virus that is wiping out citizens of London and other capital cities around the world. After a terse few days (and a lot of soiled bedding) Stevie emerges as one of the only survivors. Luckily, this enables her to pursue the mystery of Simon’s death, and it becomes apparent that he was embroiled in far more dodgy dealings than he’d ever let on to Stevie. Now she must evade the stalkers that are after her and try and outsmart Simon’s sinister colleagues.
After a hugely promising opening, it seems the rest of the novel can’t quite live up to its beginning. Yes, Stevie is feisty and gutsy and ticks all the boxes for the strong female lead, but there is something a bit flat about her and around two-thirds of the way through A Lovely Way to Burn she somehow lost my attention. This was, in part, due to the dodgy similes that absolutely plagued this book (see what I did there? If you think that was bad, the similes are worse). It felt as though the novel was being driven by the plot alone, with action scene after action scene eventually culminating in an exhausting ending.
A Lovely Way to Burn is the first instalment of a trilogy, which perhaps explains the somewhat unsatisfying ending. Certain questions would, naturally, need to be left unanswered, but I can’t help feeling a little cheated by how stingy Welsh has been in tying up plot threads. The novel was also released in the same year as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which no book was ever really going to measure up to. Nonetheless, if post-apocalyptic lit is your thing, A Lovely Way to Burn is a solid addition to the genre. Just don’t read Station Eleven first…