“[…] like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.”
It’s probably best to go into this book without knowing anything about it because there’s a pretty cool surprise reveal early on. Even watching the trailer for the movie reveals too much. I won’t include any major spoilers in this review, but I will talk about the initial reveal which the movie trailer will also give you, so read on at your own risk.
M. R. Carey was shortlisted for the James Herbert Award for debut horror fiction for this book, despite the fact he published several horror novels before this under the name Mike Carey. (Note to self: Use a different pseudonym for every novel to always be eligible for the “best new writer” category.)
This book starts inside a school of sorts, but when not in class, the children are kept locked up and there’s a military presence, so we get the sense that something strange is going on.
Melanie has no memory of being anywhere other than in this strange school. For her, it’s normal life. She doesn’t know why the adults seem to be afraid of the kids or why her fellow students sometimes disappear. Helen Justineau is the only teacher who treats the children like they’re children.
Carey does a great job with the slow reveal. We end up finding out fairly early on that the children are zombies, but they’re somehow able to maintain a high IQ in spite of this. They are being studied in this secret research facility in order to try to find a cure. It’s a different take on the zombie novel. The most literary approach to zombies I’ve come across. There’s a lot more to the story than simply action sequences.
The facility ends up getting overrun and has to be abandoned. The survivors of the assault decide to make their way to Beacon, perhaps the only city left in England that’s safe from zombies. So a large part of this novel is a road trip.
Carey does a great job describing decay. There are shoulder-high weeds, pothole-covered roads and other excellent descriptions of how a city would degrade if not maintained by anyone.
I like the moment Melanie experiences outdoors for the first time because we get to experience it with her through fresh eyes. Things we take for granted like flowers and birds are new and exciting to her.
This book is a departure for Carey who usually writes about cynical lone male heroes (Lucifer, John Constantine, Felix Castor) who sometimes do horrible things because they believe the end justifies the means. Most of the characters in this book are female and even the male characters are compassionate. The characters all felt like real people: smart, complicated, and flawed. At first, it seemed like Sergeant Parks will be a stereotypical military guy and Caroline Caldwell will be a stereotypical scientist, but as we learn more about them, they become more real.
His scientific description of the fungus that turns people into zombies was quite convincing. In fact, the only complaint I can muster against this book is that it may have spent a bit too much time on the scientific jargon. Another possible complaint is that his occasional attempts at humor are often too subtle to really work in the face of such an overwhelmingly grim story.
The fact that the zombies don’t move until they sense prey makes them more scary and I liked that the fungus eventually turns them gray over time. These aren’t immortal zombies. They only live as long as the fungus keeps them moving. Also, I think this is the first zombie story I’ve come across in which zombies sometimes resort to eating themselves, which makes sense given their insatiable hunger combined with their inability to feel pain.
Chapter 28 is my favorite chapter. In it, we shift between each of the viewpoint characters, learning what each of them is thinking. Here’s a long quote from it:
“Helen Justineau is thinking about dead children.
She can’t narrow it down, or doesn’t want to. She thinks about all the children in the world who ever died without growing up. There must have been billions of them. Hecatombs of children, apocalypses, genocides of them. In every war, every famine, thrown to the wall. Too small to protect themselves, too innocent to get out of the way. Killed by madmen, perverts, judges, soldiers, random passers-by, friends and neighbours, their own parents. By stupid chance or ruthless edict.
Every adult grew from a kid who beat the odds. But at different times, in different places, the odds have been appallingly steep.
And the dead kids drag at every living soul. A weight of guilt you haul around with you like the moon hauls the ocean, too massive to lift and too much a part of you to ever let it go.
If she hadn’t talked to the kids about death that day. If she hadn’t read them “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, and if they hadn’t asked what being dead was like, then she wouldn’t have stroked Melanie’s hair and none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have made a promise she couldn’t keep and couldn’t walk away from.
She could be as selfish as she’s always been, and forgive herself the way everybody else does, and wake up every day as clean as if she’d just been born.”
Another favorite chapter is perhaps the shortest, chapter 45 in which Melanie thinks about the mythical Pandora (whose name translated means “the girl with all the gifts”).
I won’t say anything about the ending other than it’s amazing. It’s definitely the best ending to a novel I’ve read in recent memory. This is definitely a must read for both fans of literary fiction as well as fans of zombies.