Book review: Warm Bodies

Warm BodiesI picked up Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion, on a whim in the library a couple of weeks ago, when I went in to get my most recent book club choice (Revolutionary Road, if you’re wondering – wonderful piece of writing, but terribly dispiriting to read!). I’d heard of it previously, and it sounded interesting: a love story in which the protagonist is a zombie? The praiseworthy quote from Stephanie Meyer (she of the sparkly vampires) on the cover almost made me put it back down again; the other praiseworthy quote on the cover from Simon Pegg (he of the zom-rom-com) convinced me to take it out. Well played, choosers-of-cover-quotes!

‘R’ is a zombie. He has no name, no memories, and no pulse, but he has dreams. He is a little different from his fellow Dead. Amongst the ruins of an abandoned city, R meets a girl. Her name is Julie and she is the opposite of everything he knows – warm and bright and very much alive, she is a blast of colour in a dreary grey landscape. For reasons he can’t understand, R chooses to save Julie instead of eating her, and a tense yet strangely tender relationship begins. This has never happened before. It breaks the rules and defies logic, but R is no longer content with life in the grave. He wants to breathe again, he wants to live, and Julie wants to help him. But their grim, rotting world won’t be changed without a fight…

I’d expected this to be a fairly silly, throwaway read. Maybe even blackly comic, in a Shaun of the Dead-type way (probably influenced by the cover quote!). Suffice to say, when I actually started reading it, it was not at all what I expected. I actually found it quite moving – you forget the absurd horror-movie trappings after a while and start to really care about R and Julie! It was also a surprisingly clever commentary on power, and society – which shouldn’t have been a surprise really. Post-apocalyptic horror has always been a genre with plenty to say about modern life!

The writing is also far better than I’d expected. Marion starts with a narrative trick that I’ve always disliked – narration in the first person by a character who can’t actually talk, but shows through the narration that they’re actually really articulate inside – and somehow makes it work. Partly it’s because R’s narration is so poignant, that he becomes a genuinely sympathetic character:

“But it does make me sad that we’ve forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else’s because I’d like to love them, but I don’t know who they are.”

There seems to be a recent trend for taking classic horror “monsters” and making them sympathetic, but this is the first time I’ve seen it attempted with zombies – I don’t read/watch enough horror to know if it’s actually been done like this before (the closest I can think of is I Am Legend – the book, not the film). It shouldn’t work, but it does. Marion takes the flesh-eating, shambling corpses of a thousand horror movies and video games and gives them lives, families, a society, even a religion of sorts. Not that this reduces the horror – there’s still plenty of gore in this book, which I was pleased about, there’s nothing worse than completely sanitized monsters! The zombies in this book may be a little more human than their fictional predecessors, but they are still driven to consume human flesh – reluctantly or not!

“Eating is not a pleasant business. I chew off a man’s arm, and I hate it. I hate his screams, because I don’t like pain, I don’t like hurting people, but this is what we do. This is the world now.”

The book gets even more interesting when R follows Julie to the Living’s stronghold, in an old stadium, and we see a bit of how people are surviving. This is where it goes a bit beyond “quirky love story” and into social commentary. Living behind barricades, overcrowded and fighting to survive, the remaining Living have given up on anything that does not immediately increase their survival odds:

…we built the schools once we finally accepted that this was reality, that this was the world our children would inherit. We taught them how to shoot, how to pour concrete, how to kill and how to survive, and if they made it that far, if they mastered those skills and had time to spare, then we taught them how to read and write, to reason and relate and understand their world.

It’s implied that R and Julie’s worlds, the world of the Dead and the world of the Living, are equally grey. The Living are going through the motions, driven only by their instinct to survive, in much the same way as the dead.

Without spoilers, I have to say that I found the ending a little anti-climatic. It all seemed a bit neat to me, but then I don’t really know how else it would have been wrapped up. It’s a small criticism though, and didn’t really diminish my overall enjoyment of the book.

Overall, I loved it. It’s a real page-turner too – I finished it in a couple of days. Highly recommended!

Verdict: 8/10

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