Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies

Written by: Isaac Marion

Published: 2010

Synopsis: '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...

Challenges: RIP VIII

"Once you've arrived at the end of the world, it hardly matters what route you took"

So it seems like 2013 is the year of YA reads. It's also the year of swallowing my pride and admitting maybe I was a little quick to judge. When I first heard rumblings of Warm Bodies online a year or so ago, I grumbled to myself about zombies finally being given the Twilight treatment. When favourable reviews started to come out I attributed it to people not really knowing the zombie genre too well, and therefore having pretty minimal expectations. In fact, I just went back to Alley's review (which is brilliant by the way, go read it and give her some love) and I commented saying:
I have this on my 'to read' list but it's definitely going to be a library book, because I still feel like it's going to be a universal joke to make me read a zombie Twilight story.
I was ready to write this one off without giving it a real chance. And considering I've been studying zombies for the past 2.5 years and have been burnt by shitty representations of zombies in literature in the past - I think I had a right to be a little wary. But when my PhD supervisor told me the film was actually pretty brilliant I had to reconsider my stance, because if Australia's best known and respected horror expert thinks it's a nifty take on the genre then maybe there's something to it. He was right, you all were, and I was very, very wrong. Warm Bodies is everything everyone said it was, it was funny and clever and a really solid YA read. It wasn't perfect, and I'll get to that later, but i'm definitely glad everyone wore me down and it was sitting on the "HEY! Read this immediately" shelf at the library.

So a lot of the reviews I've read have said "this isn't like any zombie story you've ever seen before" and that isn't entirely correct. Isaac Marion, who surely must be a pretty big fan of the genre, actually builds on the work of George A Romero. Romero's best known for the first two of his six zombie films, but if you follow the two trilogies there's a clear evolutionary path that the zombie takes. From mindless cannibalism and the reckless spread of their virus (Night of the Living Dead), the zombies slowly start to show recognition of household items (Bub and the telephone in Day of the Dead), to organised attacks against human oppressors (Big Daddy in Land of the Dead), to choosing to eat animals over humans (Survival of the Living Dead). What is new, however, is taking this idea and showing it to us from the zombie point of view. Whether Marion actually intended to build on Romero's work is up for debate (I can't honestly be bothered to see if he's said anything to this effect in an interview), it's clear he needed to take this approach to make the story work, because a story from a traditional zombie's point of view would be terribly boring. But Marion manages the difficult task of balancing this idea of consciousness with well-known zombie conventions. It's true that they think and maintain relationships and families, but they do still attack and eat the living, rot and decompose and can be taken out completely by a blow to the brain. It advances and adapts the genre without slapping die-hard fans in the face - something that Stephenie Meyer never managed to get a hang of.

I intend to throw Twilight under the bus A LOT more
I'm sure you've all heard the basic breakdown of the story, but here's a refresher just in case. Warm Bodies is based on Romeo and Juliet, although beyond the forbidden love angle and a scene on a balcony, it's a pretty loose adaptation. Did it actually need to be based on one of Shakespeare's most famous plays? No, but unlike Twilight it's not just a ham-fisted shout-out screaming "LOOK IT'S JUST LIKE GREAT LITERATURE". Romeo, or R in this case since he can't remember the rest of his name, is different to the other zombies. He seems to have retained more of his humanity and is constantly battling with the existential crisis that is life as a zombie. He goes through the motions, he kills and eats the living, "marries" another zombie and adopts a couple of kids,  rides an escalator around and around - but it never seems like enough. And then one day on a hunt he finds himself drawn to protecting a human, a girl named Julie. He covers her in blood, pretends he turned her into one of them, and takes her back to his home in an aeroplane.

And this is where my favourite part of the novel comes in. The reason R falls for Julie is that he eats her boyfriend. And in Marion's world, when a zombie eats a brain they get a brief flash of the life that their victim lived. Some flashes are stronger than others, and R seems to live (ha! sorry not sorry) for these brief reminders of life. So when he takes a bite of Perry's grey matter he experiences a flash far greater than he's ever experienced, and Perry's love of Julie is passed on to R. It's this initial flash of life and emotion that leads to the development of our two leads' relationship and the unfolding of the narrative. R becomes almost addicted to revisiting Perry's life (he keeps the rest of his brain in his pocket for snacks) and eventually it develops into something...more. And the small flashes of Perry's life and his struggle to find a reason to live in a post-everything, zombie-infested world were brilliant. It's not that R and Julie were bad characters per say, but they are both cut from well-worn YA cloth and didn't really deliver anything new. Perry on the other hand felt more human and less like an archetype, and I shared R's curiosity in unfolding the story of his life.

The zombie life mirrors the life of the living in Warm Bodies. Both groups have banded together into larger groups for protection, they train their young to survive in this apocalyptic world, and they struggle to retain a semblence of pre-zombie normality. There's not a lot of cheer and optimism in the living camps, but there's even less in the zombie hives. They live in groups, but given their inability to truly communicate or physically respond, they're always alone.
"We recognise civilisation - buildings, cars, a general overview -but we have no personal role in it. No history"
Their hunger isn't something they have any control over, and R isn't the only one who seems to detest what they've become. All of their attempts at living life, their marriages, attempts to have sex and fascination with eating brains are so sad and empty that it's hard not to feel sympathy for these people who were once us. And Marion manages to weave these small moments of levity into the greater romance plot in such a way that it never feels overly sad or philosophical, but it's impossible to completely ignore them.

Mild spoilers - Although I liked the book overall, I actually didn't love the central premise, namely that through meeting Julie R begins to transform. The execution felt a little rushed and it was a little overwrought and under-explained. I think it could have been a fascinating book if they had to learn to love and live with each other despite their differences, differences which are impossible to ignore. I understand that Marion is writing a sequel which perhaps will explore the cause of his transformation and the ramifications, and certain hints regarding the boneys give a cursory explanation but I wanted more about the how and why and less about the R&J love story. But then I'm pretty stone-hearted when it comes to YA romance stories. End spoilers.

I don't particularly like being wrong, but when it comes to a book exceeding expectations I'll happily accept it. Warm Bodies is a funny and sweet novel that I'm starting to think might actually be my new favourite zombie novel. And in case you're nervous about it being scary (it isn't) because zombies are always scary (seriously it isn't scary) you can actually read the short story that this was based on, which will 100% prove to you that I'm not lying about it being non-scary.


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