These four very different lives intersect as Quinn’s carefully constructed plot unfolds. Painstakingly precise in its cultural references (the Clash and Bowie prominent on the soundtrack), his story of a recent past that seems simultaneously remote and entirely familiar is engaging enough but it is too frequently let down by flatness in his prose and dialogue.
despite the irresistible and sombre contemporary echoes, this is not primarily a polemical or even depressing book. Peopled by the kind of strong, fully realised individuals whom you could easily identify in a crowd, it is skilfully plotted and written with a rare elegance, sinuous wit and even optimism. It is a deeply satisfactory read.
From Warninks liqueur to workplace sexism, the novel is awash with period markers both solemn and light-hearted; at one point Hannah’s boyfriend uses his Access card to chop out a line of cocaine. But as well as taking a trip down memory lane, Quinn wants to explore how Labour voters were blindsided by Thatcher’s rise; he seems here to have the complacency of 21st-century echo chambers in mind as much as the dogma of the past. Hannah doesn’t peg her man for a Tory voter: “He was considerate and funny and well dressed, he didn’t patronise women as far as she could tell – and he loved Joni Mitchell.”
London, Burning has enough material for a novel twice as long, and you sense Quinn’s consummate courtesy as a writer might extend to needless worry about outstaying his welcome. But the loose ends hint that he may be writing a sequel even as we speak: roll on the 80s.
Quinn lights a long fuse and stands well back. The story’s two bomb explosions, the first killing the shadow home secretary — a fairly colourless rendition of Airey Neave, mysteriously disguised as ‘Middleton’, which was Neave’s second name — are every bit as exciting and climactic as they should be. The loud thunderclap of one bomb going off made me shudder at the memory of an IRA explosion which I witnessed at close quarters and which came close to killing me.
Quinn, a former film critic, is busy stirring up a period mood: from the ever-present adverts (for Kit-Kats, wallpaper, “Labour isn’t working”) to the disdain for working women (another officer suggests that Vicky could dress better). At times Quinn goes overboard – like a dissection of The Deer Hunter stretching over several pages, or when Hannah tells Callum, “I don’t think I’ve heard anything like Wuthering Heights – ever”. The debates about politics (whether unions are “throttling the life out of this country” or “a force for change”) and Ireland feel binary. Perhaps that’s the point: in London, Burning, Quinn conjures an atmosphere of suspicion and exasperation, one in which everyone’s spoiling for a fight.