Book review: A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh (fiction, ***)

Atmospheric and richly detailed, A Lovely Way To Burn starts out as an immersive thriller set in the beginning days of a sickness epidemic called “the sweats” that’s wiping out thousands of London’s population. Our protagonist, however, is more than a little distracted from what’s going on – by the fact that her boyfriend’s just been murdered and no one seems to care.

Louise Welsh beautifully evokes London in the height of summertime as a petri dish of squirming humanity. Her eye for scenery and detail is excellent: the little moments that pass us by in life are, here, elegantly captured and examined for meaning. The protagonist, Stevie, who works as a TV shopping host, also makes for a promising centre point to the novel: by far my favourite scenes are the descriptions of Stevie selling toasters on TV at 6 a.m. with softcore porn abandon.

However, I found the resulting novel disappointing. It’s somehow simultaneously too ambitious and yet too narrow in scope. The mystery of who murdered Stevie’s boyfriend feels too rote, too obviously constructed. The best parts of Welsh’s writing are the organic details, but they end up buried beneath a paint-by-numbers whodunit.

Continue reading

Book review: The Girl On the Stairs – Louise Welsh (crime fiction, ****)

Pregnant and (mostly) alone in a strange city, protagonist Jane becomes obsessed with her teenage neighbour, The Girl On the Stairs, who she suspects of being abused. Stairs is an atmospheric, well-plotted thriller that hits all the right beats of classic crime fiction, but breaks the mould just enough to feel fresh.

Louise Welsh’s debut, The Cutting Room, was my favourite book of recent times that I hated. By that I mean: it was clear that the raw materials of good writing were there, but as a whole, the novel never came together. It’s heartening, then, to be able to witness Welsh growing into a much-improved writer in Stairs. I still feel like there’s a bit of growing left to do – for instance, Welsh repeatedly uses five images where one would suffice, and all her conversations feel like two people reading off a script – but Stairs is a novel where the good far outweighs the bad.

Welsh takes easily-identifiable situations (waking up in the middle of the night and wondering if there’s someone else in your flat; meeting a new person and wondering if they’re genuine) and uses them to underpin a story where the creepiness is understated but no less scary for it.

I loved the off-hand manner in which Jane’s sexuality (she’s a lesbian) is treated. I loved the little character/relationship details that pepper the narrative. And, most of all, I loved the denouement. It’s always with a fair amount of trepidation that one approaches the final 50 pages of a crime novel, since the ways in which the author can Fuck Up a denouement are myriad. All I’ll say of Stairs’ denouement is that it’s surprising, yet believable.

There are some themes that Welsh doesn’t quite develop all the way. The setting of Berlin seems to stand in for Any City, despite Welsh’s broad attempts to evoke its historical ghoulishness. It’s also hard to accept the idea that absolutely everyone that Jane meets in Berlin speaks good English, even down to using slang. (This felt like a missed opportunity, both in the sense that not speaking the language should contribute to Jane’s feeling of alienation, and also because broken English/malapropisms can be a great source of fun.)

Despite some minor flaws, however, Stairs is a rare crime novel that manages to be interesting and original, while still delivering the old-fashioned chills of a murder-mystery.