The gnashing of teeth. The desperate creation of MacGyver implements and traps. The fighting to survive. It’s been too long since I read a zombie novel and I’ve been missing the sense of butt-kicking hopefulness they can bring. Unfortunately, while Summers is stellar at character development, this isn’t the book to assuage the craving for fighting the undead and affirming life. This is Holden Caufield meets Lord of the Flies.
Nihlistic and dream-like–Summers has challenged us with a narrator clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies.We meet Sloane at home, on the day she decided to die, except her sister Lily took the stash of pills when she left, and she isn’t sure about the razor. The suicide letter in her pocket is written to that sister, six months absent. Her abusive dad interrupts her thoughts, rapping on the door, reminding her she is late to breakfast and burning her toast as punishment. It is a small piece of pettiness that lets the reader know that control is kept in both large and small scales, that punctuality and schedule is a religion in this household, and deviation means punishment. While she picks at her toast, Sloane thinks longingly of her one–and only–sleepover at Grace’s house and her chance to be part of a ‘normal’ family full of affection and noise. A girl interrupts breakfast by banging on the door, begging for help. A crazy scene meets Sloane’s eyes, an she isn’t sure whether she is imagining it or it is real, it is a scene of such horror. When her father finally kills a zombie woman in front of her eyes, her mind snaps.
To give Summers credit, this is one of the more remarkable first-person stories I’ve read in awhile. Traumatized for years, forced into a controlled shell of a person by her survival strategies, Sloan is conflicted between acknowledging her emotions and staying safe in her fatalistic landscape. And what an idea–take a zombie/apocalypse story with a narrator who doesn’t want to survive, but has just enough conscientiousness that she doesn’t want to pull anyone into her death with her.
The story quickly jumps to seven days in the future, where Sloane and a group of older teens, including her idol, Grace, are holed up in the school, barricading the doors against the zombie hordes. It’s a rag-tag group, and the only adults–parents of two of the kids–were killed getting there. Instead of an island, we have a school, surrounded by zombies. A finite population. Somewhat finite supplies, although presumably a school stocked for a thousand or so will last six kids quite a while. There’s a misfit that was saved, Harrison, a kid hardly anyone knows because he recently transferred, and a tendency to break out in tears. He’s got ‘Piggy’ written all over him. Meanwhile, Sloane still thinks she’d rather be dead, but is having trouble drawing away as the group seeks to include her, especially when conflict escalates and sides are chosen.
There are ‘Breakfast Club‘ moments where the teens bond as they linger in the school, hoping for rescue, but the infighting is wearing them down. One of the underlying themes is the loss of family, their coping, and whether or not the survivors create their own. (spoiler) [ Grace’s twin, Trace, blames one of the others for the death of their parents.] Grace starts to represent the lost Lily to Sloane, and watching Grace and her brother interact resurrects the ghost of the relationship she had with Lily. Sloane is clearly conflicted between her safe lassitude and the emotions of loss and anger threatening to leak out. Tension starts going LotF direction when another survivor joins the group. I felt the book took a more negative quality turn with the contrivance of
[ the text message. At at that point, it’s clear frantic emotion will win out over logic. And I have to say that I felt the ending too ambiguous for my tastes. ]
The writing skillfully captures both social and inner conflict. Sloane’s dissociation is shown through sparse descriptions and simply constructed sentences. Several passages stood out: “The thing no one tells you about surviving, about the mere act of holding out, is how many hours are nothing because nothing happens. They also don’t tell you about how you can share your deepest secrets with someone, kiss them, and the next hour it’s like there’s nothing between you because not everything can mean something all the time or you’d be crushed under the weight of it. They don’t tell you how you will float through days.””I process this like a two-year-old with no life beyond Disney movies: he’s hurting her. Then I realize, no–not hurting. Kissing.””I am so sad. I am so sad it makes me heavier than the sum of my parts. I shift, restless, but it doesn’t help.”
A remarkable read. Probably a solid ‘4’ on the GR scale for skill, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to say I really liked it, although it was a quality read and an unusual take in the zombie genre. Sloane was a challenging narrator, and while I wanted so desperately for her to break out of her self-imposed barriers, to grasp the life preserver she’s been thrown so she stops drowning, moments where she was able to do so were few and far between. It’s heart-wrenching watching her struggle. It was a book that made me think, remember what it was like to be 17 and trapped, and just like the best zombie novels, made me realize the undead aren’t the worst problem.