Book review: A Lovely Way To Burn, Louise Welsh

The future is bleak for women in Louise Welsh’s dystopia, where disease triumphs over technology
Louis Welsh. Picture: Robert PerryLouis Welsh. Picture: Robert Perry
Louis Welsh. Picture: Robert Perry

A Lovely Way To Burn

Louise Welsh

John Murray, £12.99

THE dystopia is that curious form that manages to straddle the popular and the literary perhaps more easily than any other genre. HG Wells was probably the first to demonstrate this in his novels The Time Machine and The War Of The Worlds, which, while also crucial in the development of science fiction, introduced readers to a startling view of the future as a kind of technological hell, robbing us of all control.

It was a curious view for someone like Wells, with his socialist leanings, to take at the end of the 19th century. His novelistic depictions reflected social anxieties about modernity and the pace of it, but they also forgot just how much that new technology was transforming the lives of women and the working classes. Social historians have documented how the aristocracy actually resisted new forms of domestic technology, preferring their army of female servants to carry on doing the work of a few machines. Wells’ view, it could be argued, was a conservative, even reactionary, one.

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Does such a bleak view of the future necessarily mean a conservative or reactionary novel, then? In Louise Welsh’s latest work, the first in a Plague Times trilogy, we open in a London that is very much closer to us, in a summer that could be this one, or the next. Stevie Flint is picking her way through the summer crowds in Soho to meet her boyfriend of a few months, Dr Simon Sharkey. He doesn’t turn up for their date, and when she decides, in some frustration, to let herself into his flat to collect things she has left there, she discovers his dead body. A few days later, a female relative of his hands her a letter Simon has left her: he has bequeathed her the care of a laptop, with strict instructions to give it to one of his colleagues, a Dr Reah.

Stevie, however, is physically weakened after a short but extremely violent illness, distinguished by vomiting and a severe rash; on her recovery she finds out that most of the country is falling to what the poplar press have termed “the sweats”, a plague that is killing people. Two narrative trajectories then construct this story and drive it on: Stevie’s search for what really happened to Simon, and the plague that is gradually shutting down the city, with friends and associates of hers being picked off one after another.

Stevie is the carrier of the action throughout, a heroine who trained as a journalist, but after losing her job, found work selling goods on a TV channel. This new turn of events almost suits her journalistic instincts, as Welsh sends her heroine on a series of chases and risky encounters. In many ways, Stevie is a reflection of the city that surrounds her: she is energetic and purposeful but also vulnerable to attack, her external toughness being the only thing to carry her through a nightmare scenario. She is forced to make allegiances she wouldn’t normally choose to make, and with a series of male figures: the beefy and slightly creepy studio bodyguard who rescues her from an attack; her friend Jackie’s unfaithful husband; and IT expert, Iqbal, who is the only one able to interpret the data on Simon’s laptop.

As Stevie lurches from one dangerous situation to another, the image that is conjured up reminds one of US artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills, where a young woman is portrayed in various poses against a hostile city-scape. There are no women in Welsh’s dystopian world, apart from dead or dying ones. Technology is useless against the plague that is spreading and women have lost the power that technology once gave them. Simon’s medical colleagues are all male; one of them, Alexander Buchanan, even offers to send his son to collect Simon’s laptop from her. There are no daughters, no sisters, no mothers in this darkening world; as the city turns to chaos, men roam the streets and women become invisible.

This comment on what catastrophe may actually do to society makes Welsh’s take on the dystopia less conservative and Wells-like, recalling instead writers such as Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood. The pace and thriller-style of the narrative pitch her tale towards the commercial end of the market, but her lone female in a world dominated by men gives it 
the subversive edge of a more literary work.

By the end of the novel, Stevie has almost rid herself of her feminine look, marked at the beginning by her painted nails; she is wearing Simon’s clothes, has shaved her hair. The feminine has no place in a dangerous dystopian landscape. Perhaps that is what we should really fear.