Waiting for Daybreak
Written by: Amanda McNeil
Synopsis: What is normal? Frieda has never felt normal. She feels every emotion too strongly and lashes out at herself in punishment. But one day when she stays home from work too depressed to get out of bed, a virus breaks out turning her neighbors into flesh-eating, brain-hungry zombies. As her survival instinct kicks in keeping her safe from the zombies, Frieda can’t help but wonder if she now counts as healthy and normal, or is she still abnormal compared to every other human being who is craving brains?
Confession time. Considering I spent last year writing a thesis about zombies, and am currently 6 months into a PhD on the same subject, I usually detest zombie books. I'm not really sure why, I've never had a bad experience with zombie fiction but for whatever reason it doesn't fill me with the same joy and excitement that zombie films and video games do. So I went into Amanda McNeil's Waiting for Daybreak a little reticent, but hoping- as I always do- that it'd change my mind. Within a few pages I was pleasantly surprised, and knew I hadn't made a mistake accepting this book for review.
Yes there are zombies in Waiting for Daybreak (referred to as the Afflicted) but they are more a backdrop for the events surrounding protagonist Frieda, than a focal point. Affected by anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues (to name a few), Frieda has never felt like she truly belonged in society. Thanks to the zombie outbreak though, society basically no longer exists and Frieda actually seems to be doing OK. Much like Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in the film Melancholia, Frieda always felt like her world was falling apart, so when it actually happens emotionally she's better prepared than most people. Armed with only her cat for company (best survival partner ever!) Frieda lives her life day by day, cultivating plants on her roof, reading up on canning and fruit preserving for the coming winter, rearranging the house to better prepare for potential zombie attacks...you know, the usual. But when her cat gets sick, she's forced out into the ruins of the city she called home in a desperate attempt to save her only friend, and perhaps herself too.
On her trip to the animal hospital, Frieda comes across another unaffected person, the first she's seen in about a year. Mike is around her age and attractive - and not just in a "haven't seen a person in over a year" kind of way. Although he does have a barbed wire tattoo - so maybe the zombie apocalypse has more to do with the attraction after all! They decide to stick together and during their lengthy (and dangerous) trip to the hospital the two of them bond over their pre-zombie eccentricity and post-zombie attraction. Of course, it's not all smooth sailing. Frieda's pre-zombie anxiety and self-esteem issues return full force, and Mike has his own share of issues to deal with. The biggest question in this book is not whether they can survive an attack by the zombies, but can they survive themselves and each other?
I loved that Amanda McNeil took something that's currently in vogue and twisted it to explore the psychological issues of the book's characters. Frieda only survived the initial attack because of a 'black-out' after a particularly upsetting date, and her continued existence seems to hinge on her ability to survive alone and outside of society. Mike seems to be in a similar boat. A question raised often through the book (whether in text, or just in my mind while reading) is why are the only two people left alive (at least who have run into one another) people who have a history of mental illness and self harm? As the synopsis asks "Frieda can’t help but wonder if she now counts as healthy and normal, or is she still abnormal compared to every other human being who is craving brains?" In the first half of the book Frieda's current stability is demonstrated by juxtaposing a series of current-time interactions with zombies and maintaining her fortified apartment with flashback scenes from before the zombie outbreak where she was much more fragile mentally and emotionally. After Mike is introduced their relationship serves as the catalyst for unease, tension and uncertainty. The constant threat of zombie attack only adds greater stress as the two struggle to maintain a relationship in their crazy broken down world.
The book is written in the first person, and for the most part I thought it was of a high quality. There were a few instances where the dialogue between Mike and Frieda was a little cringe-worthy, and a couple of continuity/plot issues (why was the first zombie able to get into the house when Frieda locks it for the rest of the book?) but the structure of the story and execution of it was enjoyable and interesting. The first encounter between Frieda and a zombie/afflicted was fantastic, full of tension and very visual - exactly what a zombie novel needs to be- and set the tone perfectly for the direction the rest of the novel was heading. Because of the zombie threat, any time Frieda ventured outside I was sure a zombie was going to pop up from behind a car and maul her, and Mike's arrival sent all kinds of warning signs flashing (zombie 101, don't trust handsome men with barbed wire tattoos when zombies are running around!). So while I did have a few problems with the writing, they weren't significant enough to damper the overall quality of the book.
Cats, zombies, tricky relationships, GI Jane references...this book has a little something for everyone!