The Plot: Sloane is having breakfast with her father. She has been home from school and her father has written a note explaining it was the flu. (It wasn’t the flu.) Her older sister Lily left home six months ago, with a short note (I’m so sorry. I can’t do this anymore) and if only Lily had left her sleeping pills, it would be so much easier for Sloane to do what has to be done. What she wants to do.
Sloane is having breakfast with her father, and he burnt the toast to punish her because she was late to breakfast. Not as bad as the punishment that kept her out of school. (It wasn’t the flu). And Sloane is thinking the world is gray and nothing matters and she needs her sister but her sister left, and Sloane wants to leave in the only way left to her —
A desperate knock on the door, sirens, screams. A woman crashes through the window, bloody and attacking, scratching and biting, and Sloane runs, away from her father and the yelling and the blood, and suddenly the world has changed. She is with a group of teens, all running for their lives, looking for safety from the bodies that rise from the dead to hunt and kill the living.
The Good: I like zombies. Love zombie movies and TV shows and books.
I want three things from a zombie book: a new take on the story. A good metaphor for what the zombies represent. And a concrete tip or two on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.
This Is Not A Test is told from the point of view of a depressed, abused teenage girl who wants to die. Sloane was “rescued” by two high school classmates, Rhys and Cary, who didn’t know she wasn’t trying to survive, not like the rest of them. And now she is one of six, huddled up in a school, exits blocked and barricaded. Five teens who want to survive: twins Trace and Grace, Grace, where Sloane had her only sleepover and a peak into a real, warm family; Rhys, a senior whose locker was near Sloane’s; Cary, who used to sell pot to Lily and shared a class with Sloane because he had to repeat a grade; and Harrison, a freshman no one knows. And Sloane, whose secret is she’s not like them, never has been. Sloane doesn’t want to live, but she doesn’t want to put the group at risk, won’t do to them what Lily did to her, so she finds herself with them, in the high school, where her silence is mistaken for strength.
This is a survival tale, as zombie stories tend to be. And there is action. The first chapter, of Sloane having breakfast, was perhaps one of my favorite first chapters ever. OK, yes, I knew it was a zombie book; but, still, Sloane didn’t know that. It was full of the details of her sister leaving her, and her abusive father, and Sloane making it through the minutes, and it could have been a different type of book, then BAM. And better than bam, because you see what Sloane sees and she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know it’s zombies; she doesn’t know why that woman has burst through the window; and the moment when she realizes that someone isn’t giving another CPR, isn’t helping another but is doing something worse — It’s beautiful, in the way good, tight writing is beautiful.
While at the school, there are flashbacks to the seven days the teens battled through the streets, hiding and running, before they got to the school. The days when they had more people in their group. There are other moments, too, of things happening, of strategy and fighting and running. But this is also about the illusion and monotony of safety, because once they are in the school they are safe. The school design is such they only have to worry about blocking the doors; there is water because the school has its own water tank; there is food. Safety means sitting around, and talking, and trying to figure out what’s next, and maybe, also, who was to blame for the loss of two of the group.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not My Dinner With Andre With Zombies, all talk and no action. No, rather, it’s a story of psychological survival. It’s having breathing room to remember what what no one wants to remember. It’s one thing to be “together” as you flee from house to house, one step ahead of zombies. It’s another to be trapped in a school, hearing the constant “thump” against the door as they try to get in, and remember what you lost and what you did to make it that far. Watching who unraveled, and why. What people became, in this tiny moment of safety, fascinated me; and all the more so because Sloane entered this situation with so many things already haunting her. In a way, she has always lived in a dangerous world; it’s only new to the others. As they wait in the school, wondering if rescue will come, will the danger shift from the zombies outside to each other?
So, the metaphor: are the zombies Sloane’s mental health? Her escape from her father? Or are the zombies, these things that want to kill her, her father? Does she flee from them, yet want the death they offer, in the same way that she wanted to flee her father yet never did because she was tied to that house? To want death and have death all around her, wanting her — so delicious! Yet, she cannot simply open the door and wait for them because there are others to think about. She doesn’t want to kill the others. Yes, I loved the zombies for both their own zombiehood and also for the things they represented to Sloane.
Metaphor and action come together, because for Sloane, the question isn’t whether she will survive, but, rather, whether she wants to.
Finally, what lessons did I learn on survival? Backpacks can be tricky, because they give zombies something to grab. The key to finding a possible safe refuge is window placement: picture windows are bad, but windows higher than a person, or skylights, are good. More tips are at Summers’ piece at Publishers Weekly on How To Survive The Zombie Apocalypse.
Because the character dynamics were fascinating. Because damaged Sloane is just the type of person who would, indeed, have what it takes to survive a world where the rules have all changed. Because, in a way, this has always been the world Sloane lives in. Because it’s tightly written. Because it’s zombies. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.