Paperback review by Annabel
Most trilogies are strictly sequential, one volume carrying on from another. Louise Welsh’s ‘Plague Times’ trilogy is slightly different (so far) in that the first two volumes essentially run in parallel, featuring different casts of characters having to deal with life in a post-pandemic world.
A Lovely Way to Burn introduced us to the killer virus that gets known as ‘the sweats’. Its heroine, Stevie, a presenter on a TV shopping channel survives; her doctor boyfriend doesn’t. However, he was murdered before he could succumb to the virus, and Welsh combines a medical thriller with the post-pandemic dystopia story to give a superbly suspenseful read.
Enough of the first novel, the second is a sequel in some senses, but also not a sequel. Whereas the virus is very new in the first book, here we’re a couple of weeks into the epidemic – people still haven’t quite realised how serious it is, but it you haven’t read the first one there’s no need to catch up.
Scottish comedian Magnus McFall is on the brink of making it big as opening at the O2 for Johnny Dongo. Before the gig, he witnesses seeing someone die – falling onto the train rails. He has to put it behind him and the show goes well. Later, he manages to upset a clearly wired and unwell Dongo who gives him a Glasgow kiss – a headbutt — and is ordered to leave. Outside, he sees a woman being attacked in the side alley and groggy though he is, he goes to her aid, taking on the assailant – and is just putting the boot in when the bin men arrive. ‘Fucking rapist,’ the bin man said.’
Magnus ends up in prison, sharing a cell with a man who clearly has the virus. When he dies, Magnus gets a new ‘cellmeat’ – the taciturn and scary Jeb Soames. Prisoners and guards are dropping like flies, and they engineer a prison break to get out of the cell – using Magnus’s acting skills.
‘We need to get shot of here. Anyone asks, tell them we were moved here from D Wing and hope they don’t twig the colour of our tracksuits. If cons find out we’re VPs, you’ll wish you’d caught the sweats.’
Magnus’s confusion must have shown on his face because Jeb hissed, ‘A vulnerable prisoner. A fucking nonce.’
The innocent Magnus and guilty of something Jeb have to strike up an unlikely partnership, but manage to get free, find guns and motorbikes and take to the open road. The plan – to head north, Magnus yearns to return to his native Orkney, which he hopes will be plague-free.
The sweats had defeated Magnus’s appetite for danger. He kept recalling the final frames of Easy Rider, Peter Fonda engulfed by flames, Dennis Hopper lying shot at the side of the road. Neither he nor Jeb had mentioned what provision they would make should the other fall ill, or become injured. There was no need.
It nearly comes to an end soon, when they are set upon and Jeb crashes his bike, injuring his leg. They are saved, however, by a vicar with a shotgun. Magnus would have left Jeb with him, but his own bike had a slashed tyre. Jacob Powe is happy to take both to his group, established in an old abbey house, once they’ve handed over their guns, that is.
Powe’s embryonic community has potential, but the trust needed to make it work is not yet there. The assorted bunch of survivors all have different aims and the place is full of tension. Added to which, there is a bunch of killers out there, systematically hunting survivors… As Jacob says:
‘I was always a New Testament man, but we seem to find ourselves in Old Testament times.’
Old Testament times indeed. Welsh’s plot uses the classic trope of a band of survivors trying to establish a new future in these dystopian times, but cleverly adds a couple of other dimensions to it. Firstly, there is Jeb. All through this novel, we wonder about him, what did he do to end up as a sex offender in prison? We’re compelled to wonder if any of the women in this small group are at risk. It keeps us uneasy.
Then, Jacob’s community is not the new Eden it seeks to become – shortly before Magnus and Jeb arrive, one of the inhabitants dies – did she commit suicide, or was she murdered? If she was killed, whodunit? Magnus, although reluctant to stay, is cast into the role of investigator after the dead girl’s friend begs him to find out who killed her. There is a hint of the cosy country house mystery in there somewhere, hidden under survivalist trappings – very cleverly done.
There is also Jacob, the warrior-priest, with his vision of his new kingdom to deal with, and all of these themes will be resolved and come to a head in the novel’s climax.
If the first volume of Welsh’s Plague Times Trilogy subverted the medical thriller and the second the cosy country house mystery, I can’t wait to see what she does in the third part. I’ve loved it so far.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Louise Welsh, Death is a Welcome Guest (John Murray, 2016) ISBN: 9781848546561, 384 pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)