When I’m aware that a book was written as part of a series I usually only like to read them in the order that they were published. This is the case whether or not the series of books have clear character/situation cross-overs or only have thematic links. I worry about missing hidden meanings or references which link them up – plus the geeky side of me thinks things should only be read in order. There have been recent publications by Kate Atkinson and Jane Smiley which I’ve really wanted to read, but avoided because they are part of a series and I want to read the first books before reading these new ones. Unfortunately, the amount of reading time required to consume these series in total means I keep delaying starting any of them. This is also why I didn’t read Marilynn Robinson’s “Lila” when it first came out – since it’s the third book in a series in which I’ve only read “Gilead.” I still think “Lila” is one of the best books I’ve read this year which makes me glad I didn’t keep putting it off. So I’ve also taken a punt with reading “Death is a Welcome Guest” which is the second book in the Plague Times trilogy by Louise Welsh. The first book in the series “A Lovely Way to Burn” came out last year, but I never got around to reading it. I may have missed some things by reading this book first. But, from what I can tell, this dystopian novel about a plague which hits modern-day UK stands well on its own.
The novel follows Magnus, an up-and-coming comedian who has just received a big break opening for a more famous performer at the O2 arena. After his opening night he tentatively engages in a night of drunken debauchery despite having witnessed a tragic and worrying death earlier that day. Through a terrible misunderstanding, Magnus winds up in prison. While he’s incarcerated all hell breaks loose outside. When he finally emerges back into the world with the help of his mysterious cellmate Jeb, they find a plague evocatively known as "the sweats" has swept the nation sending society into chaos. Much like some other plague-centred dystopian novels and films I’ve read/seen the first half of the story is primarily made up of a series of desperate chases as the characters try to adjust to and find a place within this radically transformed landscape. The second half follows the burgeoning formations of a new community in an isolated location and presents a series of moral conundrums as the survivors grapple to form a cohesive plan for the future. This seems to be a natural format, but it’s one where I often find the thrill of the first half to be the best part. I found this to be true with the movie 20 Days Later and I feel it’s true for “Death is a Welcome Guest” as well. Magnus and Jeb’s flight through a ravaged city filled with decaying corpses that takes them through London Underground tunnels and high-class hotels is well executed and effectively tense. But the second half becomes overtly ponderous. It’s not that I don’t find the sociological dilemmas which arise in a highly pressurized situation interesting. There’s just something about it which feels too contrived. In the case of this novel, Welsh explores issues of capital punishment, religion and suicide wrapped in a murder-mystery set on a grand country estate.
The most effective and haunting story-line of this book is Magnus’ painful memories of his cousin Hugh’s suicide. The lingering feelings of despair and resentment he holds over this loss casts an interesting colour on the events which come after the onset of the plague. Unfortunately, the social issues begin to dominate the story and take precedence over the characters’ development. Interestingly, this review by Jane Jakeman in The Independent came to the opposite conclusion. Overall, I felt it’s well written and I was sufficiently intrigued to follow the story all the way to the end. However, it doesn’t have the innovative power or focus of another recent plague novel “Station Eleven.” I wonder if the other two books in the Plague Times trilogy reflect back on the themes of “Death is a Welcome Guest” or form any satisfying narrative links between them. I’m intrigued, but I’m not sure I’m sufficiently motivated to read them to find out.