Archive for June, 2014

A Lovely Way to Burn

June 22, 2014

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In the acknowledgements, Louise Welsh mentions Terry Nation’s Survivors as a childhood inspiration for her new novel, A Lovely Way to Burn, the first in a proposed Plague Times trilogy. As a similarly youthful admirer of the series, it’s perhaps not surprising that I also enjoyed the novel. Survivors was terrifying in a very adult way – grown-ups might easily shrug off the monsters of Dr Who, but here was something that might actually happen. However, there was also something attractive about the way in which the disease reset the world, an attraction that has continued through the decades and in part explains the popularity of The Walking Dead.

There are no zombies in A Lovely Way to Burn – the virus, known only as the Sweats, is potentially all too real – but, like the writers of The Walking Dead, Welsh uses it as a background to her main narrative, a way of ramping up the tension not unlike that of a war-time setting. Like much of her previous work, A Lovely Way to Burn is, at heart, a crime novel. Its protagonist, Stevie Flint (a woman – thankfully a confusion which only arises once) is a journalist, but, in a twist on genre expectations, is currently fronting a TV shopping channel. When she finds her boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a paediatric surgeon, dead from apparently natural causes (always a sign of foul play in a novel), she decides to investigate further, particularly when she discovers a letter instructing her to deliver a ‘package’ (a laptop) to Malcom Reah. “Trust no-one except Reah.” Reah, of course, is also dead.

The ‘trust no-one’ places doubt in both Stevie and the reader’s mind, and closes down most obvious avenues of action to the character. She is forced to unravel the truth about Simon’s death by herself (with only the obligatory computer expert to help her). This turns out to be a complex and compelling medical mystery – but that, of course, is only half the story.

Welsh introduces the first signs of the Sweats subtly. As early as page 16 “the air in the car made her cough,” and shortly afterwards:

“Sweat was beading the man’s forehead. He took a hanky from his pocket and wiped his eyes. ‘Preston’s sick. I’m Jiri. I usually work days.’

When Stevie falls ill, she initially assumes it is a reaction to discovering Simon’s body. (Central to the novel is that Stevie survives the disease, something that we increasingly see to be unusual). Her illness, and Simon’s death, also explain her lack of interest in world events; only when she returns to work does she begin to understand what is happening:

“The great washed and unwashed of London are going down with the lurgy, as are a good portion of Paris, New York and anywhere else you care to mention.”

Welsh unfolds the progress of the disease even more expertly than the whodunit. She captures well both the panic and the normality: one moment Stevie is facing barricades erected by frightened communities, the next she is driving along a quiet street. The novel’s great strength is that it doesn’t attempt the kind of newsreel setting that is often seen in films. By the novel’s end we have no clear idea of the situation in London, never mind England or the rest of the world. Her final visit to the hospital Simon worked in, now abandoned by all but the dead and dying, makes clear how far things have deteriorated however.

Of course, the theme of Welsh’s crime novel – the dangers of medicine outside moral control – may coincide later with that of her science fiction novel. For now we must be satisfied with the resolution to the murder mystery. As the novel ends, Stevie is leaving London. Personally I can’t wait to find out where she is going.

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The Spinning Heart

June 10, 2014

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Eimear MacBride is currently Ireland’s most famous rejected novelist, but Donal Ryan has some claim to the title having amassed 47 rejections for his first two novels before The Spinning Heart was published in 2012. One might wonder whether Ireland’s conveyer belt of talent is simply down to persistence, or whether it is the risk taking nature of Irish writers that postpones publication but eventually reaps the reward. The Spinning Heart presents its own challenges for the reader, constructed as it is from 21 different voices. A polyphonic novel is not a new idea – one immediately thinks of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – but Ryan allows each voice to speak only once making moving the narrative forward even more of a technical challenge.

Ryan has described his aim as “to write an accurate description of a village in Ireland” and the novel’s form encapsulates the sensation of a small community as characters’ stories intertwine. If there is a central character it is Bobby Mahon whose voice we hear first. A number of the novel’s plot stands are introduced, including its concern with the economic collapse that took place in Ireland after the global financial crisis. Bobby is a builder who not only finds himself out of work, but discovers that he has been cheated while working:

“That’s the worst of the whole thing. We all went to draw our stamps and they only laughed at us. Stamps? What Stamps? There wasn’t a stamp paid in for any of us, nor a screed to the Revenue, either.”

There is a feeling that the good times have been taken for granted, questions haven’t been asked, and the greed of those who have prospered (Pokey Burke, whose voice we do not hear as he leaves the village, abandoning it to its fate) has damaged the rest. Ryan, however, is not harking back nostalgically to a pre-boom Ireland, as the past is best epitomised by Bobby’s father whom Bobby visits every day – “to check is he dead.” His father has spent the last few years drinking the money left to him by his father – entirely out of spite having never touched a drop while Bobby’s grandfather lived.

Bobby is generally admired in the community, described as a man “you’d be proud of”;

“He’s beautiful, that boy, tall and fair haired like his mother.”

And:

“Your man Bobby is fair sound all the same.”

To some extent the novel tells the story of how his reputation begins to unravel as he struggles on after losing his job. However, this would be a very simplistic view as every character’s story is foregrounded at some point, and Ryan creates some particularly strong female characters. At no point did I wish a previous character would return to take charge of the narrative, and I generally found navigating the various relationships (between characters and events) straightforward, which suggests great skill of the part of the writer.

Despite its often bleak content, the novel is also a love story. Not a ‘falling in love’ story, but one of quiet, ordinary love between Bobby and his wife Triona. “Having a wife is great,” Bobby says in the opening chapter, which is them bookended with Triona’s voice, (all the other voices being contained, in sense, within their embrace; coming between them but not coming between them):

“What matters only love?”

Ultimately this makes The Spinning Heart a life affirming book as well as an impressive technical accomplishment. Donal Ryan is yet another Irish writer to watch out for.