Recent Listening: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion — more than a love story

Warm Bodies is a very unusual zombie novel. I feel safe saying that even though I haven’t read a wide range of zombie novels – just Myra Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy. In that, as you probably know, the zombies are very typical zombies. Ur-zombies, if you will. They lurch. They shamble. They moan. They pursue the living and eat brains, and if a loved one get turned into a zombie, then you shoot that person in the head because the zombie contains nothing of the person he or she used to be.

You can surmise at once that Warm Bodies is going to put a different spin on the zombie thing, because the whole novel is from the pov of a zombie, R. Let me just say up front that although R is a zombie and although he is in love with a living girl, this is not a disturbing awful necrophiliac kind of story at all, so if you thought it might be heading in that direction, let me just assure you, no.

Now, with that out of the way, the story:

R doesn’t remember more of his original name than the first letter; thus his abbreviated name. Memories and thoughts and feelings – those are all strong terms for the vague second-cousin approximations R experiences. Until R eats Perry’s brain, and falls instantly in love with Perry’s girlfriend, Julie. And thus immediately rescues Julie from his fellow zombies, and eventually conducts her back to her home, and well, events ensue.

Perry is actually a continuing character in the story, too; at first because R experiences moments from Perry’s life in unusually vivid detail, and later because he and R hold actual conversations in various dreamscapes. Is Perry, who seems to show independence and volition, real? Or is he just a figment of R’s awakening consciousness and imagination? You could argue it either way, but in fact *I* have no doubt that Perry is a real person in the story. And the reason I’m so sure is because – here comes a sort of spoiler –

Warm Bodies is, first and foremost, a story of redemption. Perry – who is a really interesting character, in some ways my favorite character in the story – anyway, Perry had his issues while he was alive, but by the end of the novel, he seems well on the way to sorting them out – even though he’s a ghost (or whatever) in R’s head. Obviously R and Julie also show a lot of promising signs of getting their lives, or whatever, straightened out. R’s friend M? Julie’s friend Nora? Yep, them too – and let me just add that I really enjoyed both of these secondary characters, too, and btw the narrator for the audio version did an amazing job of giving everyone a distinctive voice.

Even the one unsympathetic character whom I feared might be the exception experienced a fleeting but crucial moment of grace. If he hadn’t, I’d have had trouble writing this post, because I wanted and needed the theme to be universal within the story. And it is.

Look, this is a really well-written novel. There’s some beautiful writing here. The image of the inverted cemetery is going to stay with me, for example. The dialogue is often excellent, particularly when Perry or Nora are in the scene. But this story would not have worked for me if the author had not kept his theme firmly in mind from start to finish.

Marion took on a tough job, because he stuck to an extremely limited first-person pov throughout. So we don’t see any more of the world than R sees — except now and then via Perry’s memories – and Perry was a self-absorbed kid. Why and how did the zombie apocalypse occur? Exactly what are zombies, how do they work? Those details, covered in detail in Myra Grant’s trilogy, remain almost completely mysterious in Warm Bodies. What governs the transition from “fleshy” to “bony”? We don’t actually know; we only get little hints around the edges. The explanation intuited by Julie — we did this to ourselves through greed and hate and etc — is ridiculous, but nothing in the book actually suggests it’s true, either. Personally, I could easily interpret the zombie plague as a kind of invasion of parasitic alien entities, but there’s nothing in the story to support this interpretation either.

We actually do see a little bit of zombie . . . society, I guess you could say. So we know right from the start that zombies aren’t one hundred percent mindless corpses. Still, R is significantly more mindful than most. What exactly is special about R, what happened to him when he ate Perry’s brain, why him, why Julie – if this book has a weakness, it’s that we never really get answers to any of those questions. But we get answers to different important questions: Is it possible to reclaim life from death? Is it possible for the world to recover from the zombie apocalypse? In Grant’s trilogy, the zombie apocalypse is forever, and the best you can do is build your own stronghold in which to hide from the world. In Warm Bodies, there’s a different answer.

The review that made me try this book was Thea’s of the Book Smugglers, btw.

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