Good stories come in many forms, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that one has shown up in the form of a zombie book. Newcomer Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies has become one of my favorite reads so far in 2011. Yes, it is a story about zombies, but it is highly both inventive and timeless in its themes and entertaining to boot.
“R,” our protagonist, is a zombie. He is one among a hive of Dead who inhabit an abandoned airport at the outskirts of an unnamed abandoned city. He is in good shape for a corpse, not too badly decomposed. Like all zombies, R is stiff-limbed and eats live humans for sustenance. He can’t remember his name (although it began with an r) or anything about his pre-death life. He is wearing a business suit (much worse for wear), which allows him to guess what he might have done in life, but that is as close as he can get.
He and his compatriot “M” are more loquacious than most zombies; they can actually speak a few words (most zombies just grunt and groan). They organize occasional raids on the city to look for the living to feed on. They’ll eat anything human, but the prize is the brain. As the zombies ingest gray matter, they experience memories of the people on whom they feast.
R organizes a small raid sooner than usual after the last one. (He’s particularly hungry, which he does not understand. But then, he’s a zombie; he doesn’t understand much.) He and M come upon a small group of teenagers in an abandoned office building in the city. The kids have guns, but unless they place a bullet in the brain, the zombies absorb the injuries and keep on coming.
R sees a young man protecting a petite blond girl. He takes out the guy, quickly opens his skull, and starts to devour the brain. Immediately, R is taken by vivid images from the young man. He knows the girl; her name is Julie. R feels a strange urge to protect her rather than eat her, and he saves her from the other zombies. “Keep…safe,” he tells her in his halting zombie speech. He smears her in zombie blood to mask her living scent and marches her back to the airport.
Thus begins the journey of R and Julie. R discovers what has befallen the human race and the state of the world through experiencing the memories of the young man, whose name was Perry. As R ingests more of Perry’s brain (R stuck the leftovers in his pockets), he becomes more invested in Julie’s well-being. R’s act of mercy toward Julie is a seminal act, setting into motion the major action of this action-packed narrative, proving both that you’re not dead until you’re dead and love conquers all.
From the start, R is a most unusual zombie, and this fact is the number one charm of Warm Bodies. Part Romeo and Juliet, part social commentary, and part straight-up horror story, the book pulses with energy, a quick pace, and smooth language.
I’m not a regular reader of zombie stories, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film Night of the Living Dead, so I can’t really comment on how Warm Bodies conforms to and breaks the bounds of the genre. What I can say is the book is fun, surprising, thoughtful, and — incredibly — optimistic. I found it a thoroughly delightful read that I had hard time putting down. Originally a self-published work, Warm Bodies propels Isaac Marion deservedly into the ranks of imaginative writers like Stephenie Meyers and Audrey Niffenegger, who both provided jacket blurbs.