For those of you who have been waiting for the last book in the “Plague Times” trilogy, this will not come as a disappointment. In the book, it is seven years since a plague killed millions of millions of people, leaving the survivors struggling. The last book “Death is a Welcome Guest” ended with Magnus and his adoptive son, Shug, arriving on Orkney and being greeted by Stevie Flint, the heroine of “A Lovely Way to Burn” – the first book in the series. Seven years later, Shug is a surly teenager, doting on Willow who was found as a child on an Orkney farm hiding under a bed that held her dead parents. Something had gnawed at the parents.
This is a book about survival, about rebuilding a society after a disaster of unimaginable proportions. It is also a book about what people are prepared to do in order to survive, and about how a catastrophe of this kind can unhinge some people. It is a book about how easy it is to destroy the fragile veneer of civilisation, and about what happens afterwards. It is a book about the vulnerability of humankind, and how, despite everything, we will struggle to find a way to live together.
The survivors on Orkney have reverted to subsistence farming, where the need to get in the harvest takes precedence over everything else, and where strangers are viewed with suspicion and fear, because they may be bringing the plague back to the islands. So when an unknown boat sails into the harbour at Stromness, the islanders go into full alert until Magnus vouches for one of the strangers, Belle. Even then, the strangers have to be quarantined to make sure that they are not infected. Then disaster strikes. A baby is kidnapped and the strangers along with some of the Orkney teenagers disappear, including Shug and Willow. Stevie and Magnus set off in pursuit. The rest of the islanders remain behind, both to get the harvest in and because they are fearful that this could be a lure to make them vulnerable to attack.
What follows is a journey through hell, as Stevie and Magnus make their way south to Glasgow in pursuit of the teenagers with the baby. And it is on this journey that we meet people struggling to find different ways to survive. The problem is that it is the people with forceful personalities who take the lead, and causes all sorts of conflicts that I am not going to tell you about because that would spoil the book.
This may all sound very grim, and that is because it is. This is not just a dystopian future, it is a post-apocalyptic future. It is just that the apocalypse is plague, not a nuclear war so there is some chance of rebuilding a viable society. There is some kind of hope.
Louise Welsh is very good at persuading you to continue reading. This book is a page turner. Louise Welsh knows how to write a thriller. She does not hesitate from telling the reader that things can be very nasty indeed, but she also writes characters that you care about that you want to survive, that you want to get through the mess. You want Stevie and Magnus to succeed. You want Willow and Shug to go back to Orkney. You want everything to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It is just not going to happen.
The message of the Plague Times Trilogy is that we will survive, we will pull through, but it will not be the best of all possible worlds. It will not be an idyll. It will be very hard, and that it is best that we do not go there. If only our political leaders would read this trilogy …………