The Reapers Are the Angels

“God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” So begins Alden Bell’s post-apocalyptic zombie novel, written in the style of Faulkneresque Southern gothic. The central character is Temple, a 15 year old girl aged well beyond her years; a nomad traveling in the Southern states 25 years after the “illness” first began–the illness that transformed the dead into lumbering flesh-eating zombies, or “meatskins” as they are aptly called here. Temple is a loner, propelled forward by both a traumatic past and an aching need to experience all the beauty that “this ruined globe” has to offer: from shimmering fish to deserted homes filled with books, and the dream of visiting Niagara Falls. Events occur early on that derail her solitary quest, and suddenly she is traveling with an unexpected charge, and a pursuer bent on revenge. It becomes clear that the biggest threat to Temple is not from the walking dead–but from the living.

Despite some pretty gruesome zombie blood and guts scenes, this book wasn’t what I expected when I saw the word “zombie”. If you are looking for a black and white, good vs evil over-the-top storyline (Twilight anyone?), you won’t find one here. In fact, the zombies merely provide the necessary backdrop, and as the novel progresses, they seem to recede into the background like camouflaged wallpaper. The issues tackled here are deep, complex and disconcerting; there are no easy answers and no tidy endings.

The real star of this novel is Temple: a rare and visionary gem. At age 15 she seems to have already lived a thousand lives. If I were stuck in a world of flesh-eating zombies, I would want her as a companion: strong and fierce, struggling with her own demons yet showing empathy in the most barren of places. As she journeys through the South, we see through Temple’s eyes how different groups of people respond and adapt to this new environment.

Here are the key questions: How does one remain sane in a land of no rules? In a world where the walking dead outnumber the living, what does it mean to be human? By creating a goal, a purpose, a meaning for living beyond basic instinct.

For some it is the feeling of safety in numbers; for others, it is the zealous enforcement of an illusionary code. Each character must develop his or her own personal reason for living, or risk getting sucked dry by hopelessness and fear. For Temple, it is the discovery of beauty in unexpected places, and the responsibility of caring for another.

After I finished the book, I went back and read the two epigrams again:

From Lawrence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey,

“I pity the man who can travel from Dan
to Beersheba, and cry, ‘Tis all barren–
and so it is; and so is all the world to him
who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”

And then an inscription from a pet cemetery,

“Sometimes dead is better.”

Quotations I had initially skimmed over in hindsight now sum up the seemingly dissonant themes in this novel quite well: the zombies are merely a foil for those who cultivate life as relentlessly as they embrace the reality of its inevitable end.

— Madelene Pario


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