This is a zombie novel. I want to be straightforward and up front about that so if you are not a fan of zombie books you can start with that information. But bear with me as I explain why the zombies are worth your time, because this book is equal parts terrifying, sad, beautiful, and ultimately, realistically hopeful.
The history of zombies in our entertainment includes several different types of zombies. There are slow shambling zombies, fast running zombies, zombies that can smell you, zombies that can be fooled if you walk or smell like them. Sometimes we learn about how it started, sometimes we don’t, but usually there are people working on a cure or a vaccine of some kind as the population slowly falls prey to the disease. We call them different things, most recently “walkers” in the popular show The Walking Dead.
Carey’s book has “hungries” (hungry – singular) and we begin the book on a well fortified base. In the first chapters of the book we also learn about survivalists called “junkers” who refused to live on the multiple bases scattered across England, and of course the source of the hungry epidemic: Ophiocordyceps, which sounds like a really fucking cool dinosaur but is actually a really terrifying fungus that acts like a parasite when it goes into your body and takes over your entire brain and nervous system. Essentially it replaces your neurons and things so it becomes your brain. The doctor we come to know in the book is trying to find a cure by examining the children that we come to know that are being imprisoned(?) on this base. Dr. Caldwell will be a divisive figure in your local in-person book club by the end of this book.
You will meet Ms. Justineau, one of the cadre of teachers whose humanity shines and influences our main character Melanie, one of the imprisoned(?) children(?). Sergeant Parks, the brash kind-of-violent security guard who makes sure everyone is safe and manages the transport and care of the children(?). And when the base is attacked by junkers using hungries as weapons, we will follow them all on a journey which holds discoveries, transformations, and struggles which will shape the future of humankind.
I was shocked at how I related to the underlying themes of this book. If I had a degree in literary anything I would say it is a metaphor for how every generation views the next as damaged and not as good as their own, and how we should allow them to flourish as who they are. To help them grow in the world that is and not the world that was, because we will be gone and they will need to survive and possibly thrive. The power of a teacher to reach children where they are and believe in their abilities and their goodness is central in this story, and I would argue that it is the driving force leading these children into their new world.
Please understand that this is a book that is saying so much more than the survivalist adventure inked on the pages. Be thoughtful about that as you read, because otherwise it’s just another zombie novel. Love is here, understanding too, and hope that even in the darkest of times something, anything, will rise from the ashes. It’s up to us to make sure we do what we can to make sure that “anything” is something good.