This review may contain spoilers for the first 100 pages of the book. As it is nearly 400 pages in total, and the ending twist was rather predictable, I don’t think there’s much to spoil any potential reader of. Consider yourself warned.
In this story, zombies are called “hungries”. It’s kind of cute but also vaguely creepy, like the book itself. At times ridiculous, and at others revolting.
It is also a very isolated sort of story, focusing on a small group of characters each playing their own roles, and somewhat lacking in world-building. What there is of it was fascinating – have you ever thought of humans turning into trees? Here, the zombie condition is the intermediate stage that lies between life and death, caused by a fungal infection that takes over the human body and turns it into a bag of fertilizer. But there’s a lot that isn’t there – how widespread is the infection, globally? What is the rest of the world doing? Are the humans in the story the only ones left? Why are they so technologically backwards? How could a mad scientist spend years researching and then lose everything overnight? Is the concept of a backup system too complicated for them to implement? Really?
The information that we’re hoping to gain justifies that risk. It justifies anything.
And this is how the story begins – it is a fairytale, I think, and as such it follows the fairytale rule of three - a mad villain of a scientist, Dr Caldwell, willing to go to great lengths in the name of science; her precious Subject Test #1 a.k.a. Melanie; and the benevolent, morally conscientious teacher Miss Justineau, a knight in disguise. There is also a Sergeant, but he’s not important. Melanie is , by all counts, a child – but an intelligent one, and strong-willed. She resisted the lure of fresh meat in a way reminiscent of a vampire denying itself blood.
“You’re my bread,” she says at last. “When I’m hungry. I don’t mean that I want to eat you, Miss Justineau! I really don’t! I’d rather die than do that. I just mean … you fill me up the way the bread does to the man in the song. You make me feel like I don’t need anything else.”
Miss Justineau worked around children like Melanie – or, perhaps, as described by the book - the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body – and she educates them and tells them stories while observing them to write reports on their capacity for normal effect. Some of my favourite quotes in the book came from Justineau, like this one:
Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.
Acceptance is a main theme in this story. The characters accept all the shit that happens. I’m not sure if it’s been confused with resignation, because in most cases they don’t have much choice but to accept their respective fates – Caldwell accepts that her work of years has been lost, Melanie sees her future – the only way it could go - and accepts it, Justineau accepts that she has delved too deep emotionally to leave unaffected, and acceptance plays a big part in the ending twist of the story – and it’s a very good ending, in my opinion –