Thanks to railway construction workers and their mechanical diggers, a pit was discovered in London last year, beneath Charterhouse Square, where victims of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century had been buried. Though they were laid to rest in a cemetery, beside a monastery, one imagines there would have been little ceremony about their interment, the earth shovelled over them fast, as if that could contain the disease that had killed them.
The results of analysis on this collection of skeletons were published last month, and showed that the victims had lived desperately hard lives, many of them suffering malnutrition, and some bearing wounds from conflict of some sort. The implication was that one reason the plague took such a hold on the city – and the entire country – was that people were already weakened by famine and exhaustion. Around 60 per cent of the populace across Europe died during the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague, a horrifying toll, whose culprit was for centuries believed to be ship rats and the fleas they carried from the Far East. Only recently have scientists revised that opinion, believing that such was the speed and spread of the plague, it must have been transmitted from human to human. So quick was the onset of the illness that, as Italian poet Boccaccio wrote, the afflicted would ‘breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world’.
Rats were bad enough, but the thought that a germ capable of killing someone in a matter of hours was passed by breath alone is even more alarming. Despite regular outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague in remote areas of the world, most of us think of it as a medieval death, something that will never touch us. The spectre of sars or bird flu is more likely to keep us awake at night than the prospect of contracting the plague. How wrong we may prove to be.
Into this scenario, ripe for fictional exploitation, steps Louise Welsh with her deeply unsettling novel A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of a projected trilogy called ‘Plague Times’. One could not accuse Welsh of glee, but there is a decided relish in the way she revisits the plague upon modern London. Her modern malady is more like a version of norovirus with bells and whistles, its symptoms so unpleasant that one of her characters commits suicide when he knows he is infected, rather than suffer to the end. By that point, London is emptying fast, people evacuating in the hope of outrunning the disease.
At the start of the novel, however, no one realises what is about to be unleashed upon them. On her way to work by tube, Stevie, a former journalist lured into a lucrative post as saleswoman on a television shopping channel, is aware of people around her coughing. Even though it is sweltering high summer, it seems a lot of people are coming down with the cold. Already the reader is pulling a metaphorical mask over their face, braced for what is to come. Meanwhile, Stevie is thinking only of that evening’s date with her boyfriend, Simon, a children’s surgeon. They’ve been seeing each other for four months, and things are going well. Or at least, they seemed to be until Simon does not appear, and she leaves the uber-trendy Soho bar alone, disgruntled, but flashing her best sales smile at the pitying staff.
A few days later, when Stevie still has not heard from Simon, she decides she’d better collect her things from his flat. Clearly the relationship has ended. And she’s right. When she gets there, she finds Simon dead. After calling the police, and making a statement, she returns to her own flat, where she becomes violently ill with, as we learn, the new disease, which social media is calling the sweats, for obvious reasons. Stevie is one of the lucky few survivors, living to carry on the tale. Barely out of her bed, she receives a visit from Simon’s sister, who brings her a letter Simon had left for Stevie. In it he tells her that if anything happens to him, she is to take a laptop he has hidden in her attic to his colleague Martin Reah at the hospital. He writes, ‘It may be that something has already happened and that your first instinct is to turn to the police. Please don’t. Malcolm will know what to do.’
When Stevie gets to the hospital, she learns Reah is also dead, as soon will be a growing swathe of London. In his place are other of Simon’s doctor associates, each of them authoritative and persuasive, and none of them – as Simon warned her – to be trusted. It doesn’t take long for Stevie to realise that Simon’s death is not natural: he was not carried off by the plague, but was murdered. The problem is, in a city where hundreds are dying every day, finding a killer is no longer important to anyone but her.
Falling squarely into the apocalyse school of literature, in the company of peddlers of eschatological nightmares such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, A Lovely Way to Burn is both a page-turner and something more subtle and thoughtful. Quietly but evocatively written, as if Welsh is paying elegaic tribute to our own times, this work has an energy and enthusiasm that suggests she has found a subject that enthralls her. Perhaps the freedom of a trilogy is liberating; certainly Welsh writes with conviction, and a lack of sentimentality that makes the grimness of what she portrays all the more terrifying and believable.
The story of a desperate search or enquiry, which has been the motif of her previous work, Welsh convincingly creates a claustrophobic theatre, with several stages on which the action takes place: the streets of the city, which are becoming empty and threatening, filled with vigilantes and looters; her own flat, which might seem like a sanctuary but is soon proved otherwise; and St Thomas’s Hospital, which is about to come under siege as the plague takes hold. One of Simon’s colleagues, asked if they can find a cure for whatever this ailment is, is pessimistic: ‘There’s not a physician alive who isn’t regularly reminded that we’ve failed to find an effective cure for the common cold.’ It’s not what readers want to be told, because it is frighteningly true. And that indisputable fact is what Welsh so cleverly plays on.
Two stories intertwine, that of Stevie trying to find out what information Simon’s computer contains, and what to do with it; and the bigger tale of London in meltdown, as panic ensues. Stevie’s story moves at a whip-cracking pace, this tenacious, tough young woman an ideal protagonist for such perilous times. Able to fend off an assassin, or clamber over high fences, she is a survivor in every sense, knowing how to use her wiles to best advantage. ‘Her face was a weapon that had served her well,’ writes Welsh, ‘and it was important for her to maintain it, just as it was important for a soldier to maintain his gun.’
As Stevie begins to realise that her boyfriend had been involved in something less than reputable, the moral murkiness of the novel deepens.There’s a pleasing inversion about this tale, the heroic children’s doctor not just dead but perhaps less saintly than one would have presumed; and a pretty woman from the meretricious end of the media charged with the role of detective and of salvaging his reputation.
The plot fizzes, as it must, though with occasional clumsiness, as when one villain snarls, cartoon-style, ‘You talk too much!’ Conveying Stevie’s illness when the fever is at its height, Welsh runs words together for half a page, as if they were thoughts, but while this device ought to work, it doesn’t, slowing the reader down just when the character’s mind is spinning at a dizzying rate.
Compelling though the storyline is, it acts best as a means of propelling Stevie into the underbelly of the city and the medical world, the eerily drawn backdrop of the novel giving it much of its power. Welsh’s imagining of armageddon taps into everyone’s fears, and her eye for nasty detail is unerring. ‘A rat was scurrying down the stairs towards her, fat and sleek, busy as a working mum in her lunch hour.’ A young soldier, guarding a convoy carrying corpses, ‘gave her a smile that made him look like a child soldier, young, but already marked by symptoms of an old age he would never reach.’ A child clings to his mother’s back, ‘his arms and legs still stretched tightly around her, like a spider trying to subdue a much larger prey.’ Master of the macabre, she rolls these unsettling words around the reader’s tongue, leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste.
Echoes of downtown New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are caught in the police’s door to door hunt for survivors or bodies, so too of the London riots, as the streets turn feral. It is partly the sense of recognition that makes Welsh’s nightmare scenario so chilling, that and the economical clarity of the writing. Nor is there any proselytising, as so often with end-of-the-world fiction. Welsh is not judgmental. Instead, she is a portrait painter of our frantic, fragile times, for whom the warts – and buboes – are as fascinating as the fancy clothes.
A Lovely Way to Burn takes its title from much-covered song ‘Fever’:
They give you fever, when you kiss them
Fever, if you live and learn,
Fever, ’til you sizzle
What a lovely way to burn.
As Welsh shows, however, plague is a far from lovely way to die. One is all too aware by the end of this, the trilogy’s first volume, that the thermometer, and the fever, are likely to mount higher still.
A Lovely Way to Burn
JOHN MURRAY, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-84854-651-6, 358PP