Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (book review).

December 30, 2015 | By | Reply More

‘Warm Bodies’ was Isaac Marion’s debut novel and it seemed to catch the zombie zeitgeist when it came out in 2010, rapidly being turned into a successful Hollywood movie. I reviewed his 2015 prequel novella, ‘The New Hunger’, here last month. How does the original novel compare?

The story takes place some years after the zombie apocalypse and is told from the perspective of R, an unusual zombie who has retained some limited mental faculties as well as being physically well-preserved. R lives with hundreds of other zombies, most of whom fulfil the zombie stereotype, rather better than he does, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a few kilometres outside the US city.

WarmBodies

R is feeling the almost uncontrollable urges that afflict zombies when they are hungry, so he organises a raiding party with his closest zombie friend, M, and they walk into the centre of Seattle in search of prey. They find a group of human survivors in a tower block and proceed to slaughter and eat them. R doesn’t like doing this, but his stomach forces him to. So far, so normal. However, when R goes on another raiding party, a few days later, everything changes. R attacks and eats the leader of the badly-organised group of teenagers that they find this time and as he bites into the boy’s brain, he finds himself experiencing the dead kid’s memories. Most are of happy times spent with his gorgeous girlfriend Julie and when R looks up for his next victim, he sees the real, live Julie cowering in the corner, waiting to be killed. For some reason, tied up with the strength of the memories he’s just inherited from the dead boy, R feels compassion for Julie. Rather than eat her, he disguises her by smearing her in zombie blood and then takes her back to the airport with him.

Unsurprisingly, when Julie recovers from the immediate shock of having her boyfriend slaughtered in front of her, she finds herself conflicted. She is grateful to R for rescuing her but distrusts his motives and wants to get away from the zombie-infested airport. R wants her to stay and uses every ounce of what intellect he retains to persuade her, including playing her the Frank Sinatra records he collects, as they stir some primal memory of his life before he became a zombie. Luckily for R, Julie is a huge Sinatra fan. Unknown to Julie though, R has kept the remainder of her dead boyfriend Perry’s brain and he continues to eat small pieces of it every day, delighting in the additional memories that it provides him with.

As time goes on, Julie comes to appreciate what R is doing for her. Nonetheless, she knows that she needs to leave the airport, whose undead residents are increasingly resentful of her presence, and get back to the sports stadium on the outskirts of Seattle where a large group of survivors has set up a safe area. On the other hand, R wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his undead life with Julie. The more time he’s with her, the more human he becomes, as his vocabulary and feelings grow and has fallen in love with Julie. Is there any chance that she’ll reciprocate, despite the obvious barriers in their way?

The plot of ‘Warm Bodies’ is basically ‘Romeo And Juliet’ with zombies. Stated like that, it sounds like a ridiculous idea. However, there is something about Marion’s slow and thoughtful writing style that allows the reader to sink into the prose, let it wash over them and end up believing whatever is put in front of them.

Like any good piece of prose, at the heart of this book are the characters. Given that many of them are mindless zombies, you might think this would be an area of weakness. Marion’s strength is that he manages to imbue even the dullest zombie with some small aspect of personality, whether it be in their look, their groaning or some other aspect of their behaviour. At the other end of the spectrum, R is portrayed as a sensitive, tortured soul who is struggling to understand himself and his situation even as exposure to Julie’s humanity rubs off on him, making him more empathetic and more thoughtful. His long internal monologues are one of the delights of the book as he struggles with his lack of memory of the past, while wondering if he might possibly have a brighter future, if only he can persuade Julie to ignore the rather obvious differences between them. Meanwhile, Julie comes across as a damaged but caring person who has found it difficult to grow up in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse yet has still retained her essential humanity when so many around her have lost theirs. It’s difficult not to fall in love with both Julie and R. I certainly did.

I’m in danger of making ‘Warm Bodies’ sound like a rather perverse Mills & Boon novel. It’s much more than that. The horror element is convincingly presented with suitable amounts of blood and gore during those incidents where humans and zombies, other than Julie and R, come into contact. Equally, the pace and energy levels of the narrative increase in the second half of the book as it turns into an action-adventure tale and Marion handles this transition well, too, driving the book to an exciting and energetic conclusion.

I’ve read a lot of zombie fiction in recent years. Isaac Marion has taken a unique approach to the genre in terms of both plot and style, with well-deserved success. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Warm Bodies’ for its freshness and originality and look forward to reading the sequel, which Marion is apparently in the middle of writing, as soon as it comes out.

Patrick Mahon

December 2015

(pub: Simon & Schuster. 260 page paperback. Price: $15.00 (US), $17.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-4767-1746-3)

check out websites: www.simonandschuster.com and www.isaacmarion.com

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Category: Books, Horror

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