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The prospect of having children can be exciting, but also terrifying. Luckily, it's something I've never strongly desired so I'm satisfied in the role of uncle, godfather and sometimes babysitter to friends' children. However, some reasons I'd be frightened of having children (beyond a total ignorance of how to care for them) is a dread of making some irreparable mistake and also the inability of protecting them from experiencing pain at some point. Jessie Greengrass describes this as “the overwhelming fear of fucking up that having children brings, the awareness of the impossibility of not causing hurt like falling into endless water”. Her debut novel “Sight” is a reflection on the process of having children and why her narrator is particularly self conscious about the continuation of her lineage. But, more than that, it's a remarkably poignant meditation on the internal and external levels of our mental and physical reality. The narrator is a young woman who cared for her mother during her terminal illness and now faces the prospect of becoming a mother herself. She sifts through her personal past and considers the lives of disparate individuals such as Sigmund & (his daughter) Anna Freud, Wilhelm Röntgen (the first man who produced and published scientific studies of X-rays) and scientist/surgeon John Hunter. In doing so, she embarks on a journey into how she might allow her child to see the multiple layers of life and thus pass on an abiding sense of happiness.

As demonstrated in her superb short story collection “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It”, Greengrass has a particular creative talent for not only plucking out and creatively reimagining unusual stories from history, but finding a wondrous pertinence in them. It's fascinating when talented writers can pair distinct elements of fiction and nonfiction to create a story which is still deeply emotional. Ali Smith also accomplished this in her novel “Artful” where she essentially took a series of her lectures and threaded them together around the story of a narrator who is grieving for (her or his – the narrator's gender is never specified) lost lover. It still worked as a piece of fiction for me because I felt drawn into the journey this narrator took towards a new understanding through intensely contemplating these different subjects. Greengrass similarly pairs her narrator's struggle with accepting the identity of motherhood by considering the multiple innovative methods particular historical figures took in seeing one's self: whether that be the bones of our bodies, the internal workings of a woman's womb or a method of understanding the unconscious mind.

Sometimes it's not what these figures found which the narrator identifies with, but their process. For instance, she speculates “if we could understand these moments and the weeks that followed them when Röntgen, alone, placed object after object in front of his machine and saw them all transformed, then we too might know what it is to have the hidden made manifest: the components of ourselves, the world, the space between.” In her connection with the challenges and moments of revelation these individuals experienced over a century ago their scientific practices act as touchstones and channels towards the narrator's own working towards a cohesive sense of being.

The sections where Greengrass recounts Freud's professional/familial relationship with his daughter Anna take on a very personal feel for the narrator. Her grandmother, who referred to herself as Doctor K, was a psychoanalyst so her ideas were directly inherited from Freud and influenced the icy grandmother-grandaughter interactions at her Hampstead Heath home. This challenging relationship combined with her mother's terminal illness heavily colour the narrator's complicated distress over the prospect of motherhood. They make her yearn for that clarity of vision which can be passed on, but she also acknowledges with caution that “the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment.”

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

One lovely moment in the book which will no doubt be highly relatable to avid readers/introverts is the default compulsion the narrator feels to read. At one point she states “I read not with any particular object in mind, nor really with the intention of retaining any information about the subjects that I chose but rather because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing and, perhaps, from a lifetime's inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” Part of the joy of this novel is in its inherent belief in the power that reading has to connect us to the past and ideas when we're grappling with life's challenges – even when we only turn to books in a disconsolate and disordered way.

The way that Greengrass combines disparate elements from the past with her narrator's dilemmas is done with such fluidity that it reads with stunning ease. Like Virginia Woolf's writing it's often poetic and philosophical at the same time making statements such as “what are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions; and a glimpse of what is underneath the surface, the skeleton on which the outer face is hung, cannot undo the knowledge of skin but only give it context, the way it rises and falls, its puckering, its flaws.” This novel seeks to account for the unruly fluctuations of emotions and disparate elements which make up our existence. As a deeply introspective work of fiction it won't appeal to everyone because its drama is primarily in how it marks the subtleties of transitions in life (from child to adult, from daughter to mother.) But it does so in such a captivating and meaningful way that sensitive readers will find “Sight” utterly gripping and profound.

In this video I predict why I think "Sight" will win the Booker Prize in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbwWlqMJqaA

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Andrew Michael Hurley is something of a genius in how he amps up the creep-factor in his writing about isolated rural traditions and village secrets. His phenomenally-successful novel “The Loney” was certainly one of the most atmospheric novels I read last year. New novel “Devil's Day” also produces that unsettling feeling which makes you fearfully look over your shoulder late at night. The narrative artfully plays upon superstitions and anxiety to draw the reader in. John returns to the remote Lancashire sheep-farming community he was raised in for the funeral of his grandfather “The Gaffer” and the annual local Devil's Day celebration. This is a ceremony where the devil is at first tempted in to spare him ravaging the sheep and then expelled back out into the barren moors. Meanwhile, John's pregnant wife Katherine is frequently bothered by a persistent rotting smell, there's a sick ram in the barn, local girl Grace exhibits psychic powers, an act of arson burns a large plot of land and a father recently released from jail has gone missing. This accumulation of details all build to make the reader frantically wonder what's really happening. Is there something supernatural about this environment or are these bizarre occurrences merely messing with our perception? The story builds to fantastically tense scenes and an eerily climatic ending.

This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Hurley's talent for suffusing his story with a rich amount of detail. The landscape is magnificently described and the intricacies of farming life are vividly rendered. There's a certain beauty to this age-worn setting and its proud community, but there's a sense of ever-present dilapidation to it as well: “Living on farms was one endless round of maintenance. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing. Everyone here died in the midst of repairing something. Chores and damage were inherited.” The author describes the physically-taxing nature of farming life and how little profit there is in it. He also renders how this creates a long-lasting effect on people over time: '“The valley made placid men stubborn, just as it made ageing men older.” Hence, it's little wonder that John was drawn to move away and make a life for himself elsewhere. But his return to his homeland makes him to reconsider his family legacy and whether he should continue established traditions.

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The thing which elevates this novel into being something other than a finely-rendered spooky story are the heartfelt questions about family life that it raises. Are we obligated to honour our ancestors by carrying on with their work or are we free to set out on our own? This is played out through John's narrative but his story which sifts between the past and present comes with hitches which gradually make us question his motives, viability and certain facts about his personal history. There are beautifully poignant moments when he considers how few details we can actually recall in our memories: “Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated.” We can draw multiple conclusions out of the fragments we get from John's past and the ending of the story. Like all the best riveting narratives whose exact meaning remains elusive, this novel has left me wanting to discuss it with other people so we can collectively try to tease out an answer for what really happened.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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One of the reasons I enjoy following book prizes so much is that (as well as hoping to see books I’ve loved make their lists) they often introduce me to authors and books that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise. I think it’s fair to say that the general reading public had not heard of writer Fiona Mozley or her debut novel “Elmet” before it was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – partly because it wasn’t published yet. (Its release was pushed forward because of its listing for this prize.) This might turn out to be both a blessing and a curse because it will put this new author under a heavier amount of scrutiny and criticism than a debut novel would typically receive. “Elmet” has been published by John Murray under their ‘JM Originals’ list – an excellent series first launched two years ago that self consciously seeks to promote fiction that is “fresh and distinctive” and that also “provokes and entertains”. It’s the same list which also produced Jessie Greengrass’ extraordinary and award-winning book of short stories “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to the One Who Saw It.” Now this series has put out another big prize contender. “Elmet” fits all those descriptive aims for the ‘JM Originals’ list perfectly. It’s a curiously eerie tale about a small working class community whose meaning expands to say so much more about society in general and builds to a thrilling climax.

Adolescent Daniel is wandering northwards begging for food and barely surviving. We’re given sections of his journey in italics and these are interspersed with longer passages about his unusual upbringing. He’s mostly lived a cloistered existence with his physically intimidating, strong-willed father John (who he only refers to as Daddy) and his older sister Cathy in a house that Daddy built for them in a remote copse. They’ve had little to no contact with larger society other than a smattering of locals including a woman who gives John’s children a limited home education that’s partly centred around reading obsolete instruction manuals. Their lives are mostly harmonious until the local landowner Mr Price comes knocking along with his arrogant, spoiled sons. Civil unrest is being waged by the predominantly poor locals who break their backs for the few wealthy members of the community. Although he sought a self-sufficient and quiet life in this remote location, Daddy gets roped into these struggles and their peaceful lifestyle is interrupted.

The novel is partly concerned with the mystery of what motivated Daddy to remove his children from larger society as he’s done. Tales of rogue survivalist fathers inflicting their extreme lifestyles on children have been the focus of a number of recent novels including Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”. In both cases, the father figures are darkly disturbing, but here the father is surprisingly tender despite his radical life choices, violent history and domineering appearance. This gives an interesting slant on the story and raises compelling questions about how children should be raised in a society which is unequivocally unjust. In this circumscribed existence Daddy can better protect his children and raise them with values devoid of the larger society’s prejudices, but it also preserves their overall ignorance of the world: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse.”

One of the most intriguing results of their isolated existence is that this brother and sister grow up at a remove from traditional gender roles. Cathy likes to wander through the forest and tries to engage other boys in sport while Daniel is drawn to more domestic duties frequently doing the cooking and cleaning for the whole family. There’s a fascinating section where Daniel describes how he doesn’t consciously think about himself as one gender or another. It’s a striking way of portraying how we all primarily inhabit our lives as individuals devoid of identity labels which we’re often only made aware of when we come into contact with others who only initially see what’s superficial. Daniel’s path towards physical and sexual maturity is interestingly portrayed, but I would have liked to seen it explored even more in the narrative.

It’s skilful how Mozley kept me hooked throughout this story’s unusual situation, dropping clues so that I could gradually and satisfyingly piece things together and ramping up the tension in a way which kept me on edge. Who could say what her prospects are for advancing in the competition for this year’s Booker Prize which includes so many astounding novels? But I’m glad to have been introduced to a writer whose vision is so unique and shows such tremendous promise. I hope Mozley continues to publish more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesFiona Mozley
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It's so intriguing coming to “The Blood Miracles” after reading Lisa McInerney's rhapsodic debut “The Glorious Heresies” about the lives of several disparate individuals in modern day Cork. This new book is a continuation of that story, but she narrows the focus onto Ryan who we first met as a teenager with his longterm girlfriend Karine. Ryan's initial involvement working for drug dealer Dan has morphed into becoming a key player in Dan's gangster circle. But these aren't the kind of modern gangsters portrayed in The Sopranos (as Ryan quite clearly states at one point.) I don't think it's necessary to have read “The Glorious Heresies” before reading this new book as Ryan's past and current situation are quite clearly explained at the beginning. However, it's interesting for me having first read McInerney's writing in her short story 'Berghain' from the anthology “The Long Gaze Back.” The style of this new novel more closely resembles that initial story. It captures the heady atmosphere of a young group of working class Irish men and women struggling to find their place in an economically-strained society. McInerney is particularly adept at portraying this conflict in her hero Ryan who finds himself at a crisis point in this novel without any strong role models or institutional support to guide him.

Ryan is just turning twenty-one and considering important decisions about which direction his life will take. His passion and talent is for making music, but dealing drugs is so lucrative it's hard to resist. Plus he's so ensconced in Dan's circle that it's difficult to safely get out, especially now that Dan is planning on channeling a new form of ecstasy or “yokes” from Italy which will make them all big players in the underworld. Ryan relationship with Karine has also turned very rocky, especially after he becomes enamoured with a charismatic new girl named Natalie. Things start to go badly wrong and Ryan finds himself caught between warring gangs and girlfriends.

Amidst his journey through these conflicts Ryan continuously thinks about his lost mother and persists in keeping an internal dialogue with her which is marked in italics. This is rendered in a way which is deeply poignant: “I was hungry but the hunger felt right. I needed to miss you more than I needed to eat.” Her absence is intensely felt as he's desperately in need of some guidance. Although he knows what he wants to do in life he finds himself drawn into self-destructive behaviour: “It does not escape his notice that he was set for something other than this, that his mother had laid such foundations. Instead of playing and composing on piano Ryan does it on a monitor; instead of practicing he is out on the lash.” He finds himself pulled deeper into self-destructive patterns of behaviour and dangerous circles which are increasingly difficult to extricate himself from.

Although Ryan's internal struggle is movingly rendered, the dialogue-heavy scenes where he bounces between different factions of the gangs and the women he's involved with become a bit strained. The arguments he has with these different parties are realistic, but they start to feel too circular. The stakes increase with a new stream of pills coming from Italy and there's a high level of paranoia within Ryan's gangster circle when things start to go wrong. But the dramatic urgency of this crisis where Ryan fears for his life begins to wane when things don't change or progress fast enough. Something about the thrust of the story feels lost when it's stretched out so far – whereas I think it would have kept its tension if it were just one part of a multi-threaded panoramic view of Cork-life as rendered in “The Glorious Heresies.”  However, excitement really builds when "The Blood Miracles" reaches its climax.

Ryan is a compelling character filled with good-hearted flaws who often makes bad decisions. He's at his most endearing when his best intentions lead to nothing so you can feel and relate to the frustration of his struggle: “You talk enough and soon enough none of it matters; it’s all just words, pauses, silence-and-sound.” As a big fan of “The Glorious Heresies” it's also interesting to see how central characters from the first novel such as Ryan's father Tony, gangster boss Jimmy and Maureen re-enter the story. It'll be fascinating to see how McInerney develops the characters and story further in the planned third novel in this trilogy.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLisa McInerney
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This novel is one of those rare great success stories in that it was first published in 2014 by a small press as a limited edition before being picked up by a much bigger publisher. When it was published by John Murray last year it received a wide amount of critical acclaim and won both the Costa Book Awards First Novel Award and the British Book Industry award for best debut fiction. Such a book comes with a lot of expectations and I was delighted to find “The Loney” lives up to them. Set in a bleak strip of coastline in the north west of England in the 1970s, it’s the story of two brothers who accompany their parents and members of their parish on a pilgrimage one Easter. Andrew Michael Hurley so skilfully builds a sense of a tense, gloomy atmosphere and creates suspense that I felt wholly gripped and wanted to understand the mystery of what happened during this trip. As well as being a satisfying gothic thriller, the novel raises compelling questions about faith, life's meaning and family.  

The novel is narrated by one of the brothers from a point in the far future. He recalls the pilgrimage of that Easter in the 1970s and wants to record what happened because a body has recently been found in the area that they visited. He feels a fierce sense of protection over his brother who he nicknames Hanny. As boys they were incredibly close because Hanny was mute up until that Easter and they shared a special communication. It's really tender and moving the way that Hurley portrays this where the meaning of a gesture or sign from Hanny is instantly understood by his brother as they've developed their own unique sign language. However, the boys' mother Esther (who the narrator refers to as Mummer) is determined to cure Hanny's muteness by appealing to God and puts him through a series of ardent prayers and rituals to cure him.

Their family belongs to a devotedly faithful Catholic parish which was once overseen by an extremely strict and pious man named Father Wilfred. The narrator recalls how sadistic he could be disciplining the boys, yet he's also eventually portrayed as a complex and sympathetically troubled man. Before their pilgrimage during that particular Easter Father Wilfred dies and he's replaced by a much younger and more liberal man Father Bernard McGill from Belfast. Where Father Wilfred advocated for absolute truth and confession, Father Bernard understands that “the truth isn’t always set in stone. In fact it never is. There are just versions of it. And sometimes it’s prudent to be selective about the version you choose to give to people.” Mummer and Father Bernard gradually clash in a fascinating way as she wishes him to use a more strictly enforced regiment for practicing faith. Out of this tension and the strange things happening amongst the local population, Hurley creates an intriguing sense of conflict where the meaning of faith is questioned and tested.

This drama is played out in an eerie landscape which feels overwhelmingly bleak, grey and foreboding. The narrator comments that “I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it.” It's a sparsely populated rural area of farmland where unseen strange pagan rituals occur. There is a special ancient shrine that isn't often visited, but which the small group from the parish go to so that Hanny can drink the holy water and hopefully be cured. The Loney itself is a treacherous stretch of land on the coastline where the tide washes in and out of quite quickly, often surprising and overwhelming anyone who might happen to be on it. It's a potent symbol of how a natural force greater than people can overwhelm them and control their destiny in a way that they don't foresee.

“The Loney” feels like a perfect read as we ease into Autumn for the tremendous sense of atmosphere and introspection it creates. This could have easily been a more straightforward spooky story of outsiders who stumble into a provincial area ruled by sinister old rituals, but Hurley makes it a much more nuanced and meaningful story than that. It's a novel with a lot of mystery and ambiguity – particularly because it's only told from the narrator's point of view and I gradually began to wonder if he's entirely trustworthy. He asserts towards the end that “Details are truth.” “The Loney” is a novel whose magnificent details evocatively and precisely evoke a certain kind of mood which seeps into your skin and makes you want to read on.

This novel is one of those rare great success stories in that it was first published in 2014 by a small press as a limited edition before being picked up by a much bigger publisher. When it was published by John Murray last year it received a wide amount of critical acclaim and won both the Costa Book Awards First Novel Award and the British Book Industry award for best debut fiction. Such a book comes with a lot of expectations and I was delighted to find “The Loney” lives up to them. Set in a bleak strip of coastline in the north west of England in the 1970s, it’s the story of two brothers who accompany their parents and members of their parish on a pilgrimage one Easter. Andrew Michael Hurley so skilfully builds a sense of a tense, gloomy atmosphere and creates suspense that I felt wholly gripped and wanted to understand the mystery of what happened during this trip. As well as being a satisfying gothic thriller, the novel raises compelling questions about faith, life's meaning and family.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Looking at the Baileys Prize longlist, one of the novels I was most excited to see was by Lisa McInerney who I had read recently in the brilliant anthology of Irish women writers “The Long Gaze Back”. Her story 'Berghain' is full of spit and fire as it follows a young man's drug fuelled night out. It struck me as so forceful how she wrote from a male character's perspective about experiences not often explored in fiction. Her direct style and subject matter is reflected in this novel “The Glorious Heresies” about the lives of several struggling individuals in modern day Cork. At the beginning of the novel, we meet fifty-nine year old Maureen who has just murdered a man in her apartment. Her gangster son Jimmy calls upon his estranged old friend Tony to help him clean up the mess. Several people are drawn into this incident and its consequences reverberate through their lives over a number of years. At the heart of this novel is Tony's teenage son Ryan who struggles to find his place in this post-financial-crash Irish community. With powerful wit and insight, McInerney weaves a story of the underbelly of society exploring the ways these individuals are hampered by their country's social system and religious traditions.

There is a lot of bad behaviour in this novel and a good amount of cursing. Though the characters aren't excused from participating in folly that leads to violence, substance abuse and antisocial behaviour, the author shows how their choices are inhibited by the society they live in. A prostitute leans on drugs and alcohol to distract from the hate she receives from clients. A boy acts out at school because nobody notices the mental and physical abuse he receives from his father. A mother sets a church on fire many years after being forcefully separated from her baby born outside of wedlock. A single father commits heinous acts to protect the six children he struggles to raise and support.

Through Ryan we see how a boy with intelligence and artistic promise (he's a talented piano player) is slowly drawn into a life of crime and gang violence. He needs nurturing, but his development is perverted by abuse received from both men and women. His tenderly drawn relationship with his girlfriend is slowly warped. What's worse is that he's aware of his life falling into cliches so that “The predictability of his transformation hurt him terribly. He hated it.” Yet, as badly as he'd like to escape his circumstances he's unable to break out of them because of the relationships he's locked into and institutions like the court, school and church that fail to see how vulnerable he really is.

'Streets of Cork' photo by Donncha O Caoimh

'Streets of Cork' photo by Donncha O Caoimh

Of course, as difficult as life is for the men in this book, life is even harder for women. It's explained how “they divide up the women into categories,” said Maureen. “The mammies. The bitches. The wives. The girlfriends. The whores. Women are all for it too, so long as they fall into the right class. They all look down on the whores. There but for the grace of God.” The prostitutes are at the bottom of the social ladder and suffer the most. The character of Tara Duane who used to be a prostitute is a particularly interesting character as someone who tries to be savvy and gain leverage in the community, but ultimately fails and participates in abusive behaviour as she's convinced of her own righteousness.

Most fascinating of all is Maureen who has strong independent opinions and exists in a privileged place as the protected mother of a feared gangster. As someone who has returned to Ireland after living in England for many years, she can see the corruption and hypocrisy from an outsider's perspective. She realizes she's made mistakes but she sees clearly how the church has hoarded power and abused its position. At one point she has this powerful confrontation in a confessional booth: “Oh, Father. I know I’m sorry. What about you? Bless me, Ireland, for I have sinned. Go on, boy. No wonder you say Holy God is brimming with the clemency; for how else would any of you bastards sleep at night?” She's someone who has entirely lost any faith in the church and its ability to heal: “there’s nothing there. No confessor, no penitent, no sin, no sacrament. Just actions to be burned away.” There is a strong disregard for the symbolic powers the church once possessed as in one scene where a runaway prostitute Georgie sniffs cocaine off a bible and observes that these books are “Mass produced and made of dead trees; there’s nothing special about them.” The ferocious anger for the way religion has failed to support people when they are at their most vulnerable is palpable throughout the book.

“The Glorious Heresies” is an energetic and dynamic story depicting members of society who aren't often given a voice. For this reason, McInerney's writing reminded me of books by Kerry Hudson and, for the way it depicts communities entrenched in violence it reminded me of the LA novel “All Involved”. It speaks of the challenges the current generation faces while showing an understanding of the weight and influence of the past. In fact, the past continuously bleeds into the present as a character named George observes “We’ve more history than we’re able for.” Instead of looking to the age-old institutions for support and inspiration the newer generation's experience is refracted through video games or popular TV shows like The Sopranos or The Walking Dead. McInerney writes powerfully about issues affecting us here and now. I felt drawn into her characters' lives and tremendously moved by this strikingly forceful novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLisa McInerney

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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Welsh
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