Following good stories wherever they lead
A new take on the zombie tale with a complex protagonist, this grim world is illuminated with surprising lights and woven with strange threads.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 mugs
If you’re in the mood for: A dark coming-of-age meets Pandora’s box, in an apocalyptic setting.
Melanie likes most of her classes, but Miss Justineau’s is her favorite. And not just because they learn about Greek mythology and springtime, and all sorts of things the other teachers don’t talk about.
Miss Justineau is special. She is beautiful and lively and she loves the children and Melanie loves her.
More than anything, Melanie wants to make Miss Justineau happy. She is the smartest in her class — sometimes she does complex calculations in her head to figure out the date and current population of the planet — and she pays attention. So she notices when Miss Justineau gets sad, but she doesn’t know why.
It happens when they talk about certain things in class, like death. Miss Justineau says it will be different for them, the children, but her mouth turns down and she won’t say why.
And it happens when other people do things in front of Miss Justineau. Like standing too close to one of the children on purpose, until they have a reaction. Until they have to wheel the child away, still churning and straining against his restraints.
At the end of class, Melanie usually doesn’t mind being wheeled back to her cell, except that it separates her from Miss Justineau, and she can’t fix anything that way. Locked away for the night, she waits for the soldiers to collect them the next morning, and hopes that it’s another Miss Justineau day.
Soon, Melanie’s entire world is about to shatter. And when she discovers the truth about herself, there will be no closing Pandora’s box.
A strong new take on the zombie story, told from the point of view of a unique heroine. Melanie is equal parts scientist and child, observing constantly and struggling to reconcile her findings with the limits of her understanding — even as she simply longs to be loved.
The people around her are studies in human nature in all its ugly faults: Sergeant Parks, the straightforward soldier turned uneasy collaborator; Dr. Caldwell, the ruthlessly focused scientist bent on her mission; Gallagher, the uneasy recruit who fights a coward’s instincts; and Miss Justineau — either the best or worst of them all. Perhaps both. She loves and protects Melanie with the hopelessness of the damned, with no hope of redemption, as they travel the remains of a world hardly anyone remembers.
The pacing starts a bit slow, but once it picks up it stays tight, and the action is equal doses stoic and horrific. The building tension as the group continues its journey is well-executed; this is not a group of friends, or even acquaintances thrown together, but rather a set of hard-willed survivors whose drives and goals are often at complete odds. In the middle of all this Melanie is the negative center — at once both their potential savior and possible destroyer.
Style-wise, it’s a mingling of straightforward account and near-poetic musing, particularly when we see the shattered world through Melanie’s eyes. Shifting perspective allows some relief from limitations in her understanding — but even when we hop into other character’s minds, it’s at an almost clinical third remove. For this story, it works well, a slight deadening effect to match the grim surroundings.
In particular, this has one of the most satisfying endings in terms of remaining true to the story and dodging cliche, and one that’s worth committing to the journey for. Not a tale to cheer the soul, necessarily, but maybe a necessary story.
And you won’t be forgetting Melanie anytime soon.