Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Ok, first things first.  
I loved this book. 
Loved it. 
I wanted to clutch it to my breast and sigh in satisfaction at its conclusion.  It was not at all what I expected.  This is another book I received for free at the Book Blogger Convention.  I almost didn't take a copy.  I walked past the display several times before finally sticking one in my bag.  I thought I knew what Warm Bodies was - a young adult*, star-crossed romance novel about zombies.  Not something I was really interested in.  But, by that time, I had already decided I would do a zombie theme for the month of June since, without even trying, I had acquired several zombie novels at BEA.  I figured one more couldn't hurt.  Man, oh man, am I glad I took this one home.  Warm Bodies is much more than I ever expected.  

The story takes place – as they all seem to do - after the zombie apocalypse and collapse of society.  R, our zombie hero, is having a bit of a crisis; when not out hunting humans, he spends much of his time listening to old records and passively pondering the meaning of zombie life.  Things begin to change for him when he meets human Julie… right after eating her boyfriend, Perry. (They meet during a zombie attack which I guess is the zombie equivalent of “meeting cute”.)  When zombies eat the brains of the living - for a brief period- the zombies experience the memories of their victims.  R is overwhelmed by Perry's memories of Julie, the love and the need to protect her.  He is not only unable to eat her, he also saves her from the rest of the zombie horde, taking her back to his home in the zombie enclave at the airport. (See, the zombies live out at the airport while many of the humans live at the stadium in the city.)  As R and Julie spend time together, not only do Perry’s memories not fade but R begins to evolve; losing his desire for brain eatin', beginning to be able to string words together, and even forming simple sentences, (breaking his previous record of four syllables.)  His feelings for Julie also grow beyond those he has consumed, as does his need to keep her safe.  Knowing that she cannot remain at zombie central, R and Julie must make the trek to return Julie to the stadium and, in doing so, spark a metamorphosis that will change not only themselves but humanity.  This is a romance, yes,  but it is so much more than that. It’s an enchanting fairytale, with the zombie as metaphor, that asks what it means to be human, what it means to be truly alive.  It’s a story about hope and how the transformative power of love can change the world.

Here's our first introduction to our hero and narrator, R:
I am dead, but it's not so bad.  I've learned to live with it.  I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore.  Hardly any of us do.  We lose them like cars keys, forget them like anniversaries.  Mine might have started with an "R," but that's all I have now.  It's funny because back when I was alive, I was always forgetting other people's names.  My friend "M" says the irony of being a zombie is that everything is funny, but you can't smile, because your lips have rotted off

And, Boom, I was hooked.  R is a thoughtful, wry narrator.  He may be only able to speak in grunts and groans but inside his head is a vivid, complex verbal landscape. He, like all zombies, has no specific memories of the past, no thoughts for the future, and no drive in the present - beyond eating brains, that is.  A zombie's days are spent going through the motions, wandering aimlessly like some monosyllabic, apathetic teenager.   R longs for something more though, even if he is not sure what "more" is.  He is uncomfortable with many aspects of zombie life but understands that this is what zombies do.  Still he questions: 
How did this start?  How did we become what we are?  Was it some mysterious virus?  Gamma rays?  An ancient curse?  Or something even more absurd?  No one talks about it much.  We are here, and this is the way it is.  We don't complain.  We don't ask questions.  We go about our business.
There is a chasm between me and the world outside of me.  A gap so wide my feelings can't cross it.  By the time my screams reach the other side, they have dwindled into groans.

And a little later this:
I don't know why we don't speak.  I can't explain the suffocating silence that hangs over our world, cutting us off from each other like prison-visit Plexiglas. Prepositions are painful, articles are arduous, adjectives are wild overachievements.  Is this muteness a real physical handicap?  One of the many symptoms of being Dead? Or do we just have nothing left to say?

 The writing is just captivating.  There are Big questions being asked throughout the course of the book but the dry humor prevents it from ever becoming ponderous.  R has such a clear, distinct voice and was so emotionally engaging that I found myself really caring for this character, despite his penchant for carrying around a bit o’ brain for those times when he wanted a little nosh.  His struggles to break free from the apathy encasing him and his quest to be something more were poignant and bittersweet.

I also liked Julie, the heroine.  Living in the fortified stadium, she is surrounded by folk whose lives revolve around killing zombies and little else.  Human life has been reduced to sheer existence and this is unacceptable to her.  She needs to believe that there is more; otherwise what is the point?  Julie is strong and a fighter; she will not allow her sense of hope to be extinguished.  Surrounded by death, she manages to hold onto her belief that there is more to life than killing zombies.  There is more to life than mere survival.  Her refusal to give up hope is the catalyst that inspires others to believe that things can change. 

Now, let me address the elephant in the room. There is no zombie sex between R and Julie.  There isn't even any zombie canoodling. The two go from being enemies to uneasy allies to friends to something more in a way that I found totally believable because we see the trust growing between them.  There's a touching moment between the two fairly early in the story where R scratches out pieces of lyrics on a Sinatra album to express how special he finds Julie.  "What are you?", she asks and we, the readers, wonder the same thing.   

I thought this book was so lovely, just bursting with heart.  Isaac Marion has given us a story  about love and the meaning of life in a bleak world of zombie carnage that is ultimately optimistic and full of promise. It's a tale that is thoughtful but never pretentious. It made me so happy to read it that after finishing it, I immediately went back and reread some of my favorite parts.   I was going to hang on to my copy for awhile until I found just the right person to give it to but now, I’m thinking I need to keep this book for myself.  This one is too special to give away.
Grade: A

*Just to clarify, this book is not a YA novel.  I'm not sure why I thought it was.  It is, however, totally suitable for young adults.

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