I know, I know. I just finished one of the masterpieces of the (Middle) English language, and now I’m back to reading zombie books. A feminist zombie book about complex identity issues, but it’s still a zombie book.

Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

Melanie is a nice little girl in a prison school. Initially the book is about her and told primarily from her perspective, but as we shift into the middle of the book, things become a little more balanced. Sergeant Parks is in charge of security; he has a red-headed teenaged underling named Private Gallagher. Melanie’s teacher is a developmental psychologist named Miss Justineau, and the real authority at the base is a scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell.

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.

Because what are the ethics of a zombie apocalypse?

Back in the days of I Walked With a Zombie, the deficiently dead were a product of racial stereotypes and misogyny; this made them fairly easy to contain and defeat. Now, during the time of World War Z, they’re a product of natural phenomena, and science cannot be stopped. Now the zedheads take over the entire world.

In this version of zombies, it’s not a virus – it’s a fungus. It’s based on fungi that really do exist in nature – they infect an insect, eat out its inside and take over its motor control, then drive it to high ground so the fungus can erupt out of the bug and cast its spores to the wind. It’s horrible. These zombies either stand still or run, none of the shambling exploration of AMC’s zombies, who give the human characters time to argue for four episodes before taking any action at all (dullest horror series ever).

When dealing with a new world, authors tend to take a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis approach: think about Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or The Hunger Games. Carey’s Thesis is inside the base, which is part prison, part school, and part scientific research facility, where Dr Caldwell cuts up children’s brains. Melanie becomes the star pupil and develops a mommy-substitute crush on Miss Justineau, which is all fairly normal. But as the star pupil, Melanie is also Dr Caldwell’s prize specimen, so she needs some protecting.

Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.

And Miss Justineau is the one to do it.

I’ve often wondered what the lives of British black people are like. I mean, the English don’t have Americans’ squeamishness about interracial dating, which makes it seem like race is less of an issue, but at the same time the English are known for being sort of xenophobic. They think of Europe as another place because they’re insulated on their little island; they fought a Hundred Years’ War with the white people on the other side of the Channel, and then they kept fighting them over and over again. That seems to have stopped since the two World Wars, when they banded together against another, different group of white people. How do black people fit into all this? They were kept as slaves in the British Empire, but unlike Americans, slavery was kept distant from most British subjects. They didn’t bring it home; it was an unfortunate occurrence that happened Out There, in the Colonies. I know that some immigrant communities remain isolated because they’re never quite accepted as being British. Is race an important thing to British blacks? Do they have a separate subculture? [I don’t understand why we’ve taken to calling them “urban” in America. I grew up in a tiny hicktown in the South with more blacks than whites, so there are plenty of rural blacks, and cities still have tons of white people.]

All of that to say, I don’t know why Carey chose to make Miss Justineau black, but it feel purposeful, as if someone who has been oppressed would automatically feel the need to protect other marginalized people, and dark-skinned femininity is shorthand for victim of oppression.

At the end of Act One, the zombies overrun the base and the group comes together and escapes. They travel across the post-apocalyptic countryside, idyllic as England would become if you killed all the humans and left nature alone for twenty years. It would be really lovely if there weren’t zombies lurking out there.

Melanie builds the world around her as she goes.

This is mostly countryside, with fields on all sides. Rectangular fields, mostly, or at least with roughly squared-off edges. But they’re overgrown with weeds to the grown-ups’ shoulder height, whatever crops they were once planted with swallowed up long ago. Where the fields meet the road, there are ragged hedges or crumbling walls, and the surface they’re walking on is a faded black carpet pitted with holes, some of them big enough for her to fall into.

A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at the limit of vision that goes up and up and up like a tower. Birds and insects are everywhere, some of them familiar to her now from the field where they stopped that morning. The sun warms her skin, pouring energy down on to the world out of that upturned bowl – it makes flowers grow on the land, Melanie knows, and algae in the sea; starts food chains all over the place.

A million smells freight the complicated air.

The few houses they see are far off, but even at this distance Melanie observes the signs of ruin. Windows broken, or boarded up. Doors hanging off their hinges. One big farmhouse has its roof all fallen in, the spine of the roof making a perfect downward-pointing parabola.

She remembers Mr Whitaker’s lesson, which feels like a very long time ago now. The population of Birmingham is zero . . . This world she’s seeing was built by people, to meet their needs, but it’s not meeting their needs any more. It’s all changed. And it’s changed because they’ve retreated from it. They’ve left it to the hungries.

Melanie realises now that she’s been told all this already. She just ignored it, ignored the self-evident logic of her world, and believed – out of the many conflicting stories she was given – only the parts she wanted to believe.

Despite Gallagher’s abused childhood, I find Melanie the easiest to relate to. Her experience of the world seems most similar to mine; she’s a person who thinks a lot, has been told a lot from radically different sources, and now that she’s been thrust into the real world, she has to make sense of it. Which is hard, because it’s never quite what she imagines it to be. It’s more beautiful, more complicated, and more threatening. But mostly more beautiful.

Zombie movies seem to play on a fear most of us experience: that we’ve become slaves to routine, that we are in fact dead already. [Shaun of the Dead expresses this particularly well in the opening bit, I think.] Zombies are a teenager’s vague fear and a thirty-something’s nightmare; we’re locked into a routine that we can’t escape from, and we need something drastic to shake things up. Routines are comfortable; we wander into adulthood feeling inadequate, so we build a life of things we can do, that make us feel safe and competent and normal.

The houses all seem the same to Gallagher. Dark. Musty-smelling with squishy carpets underfoot, mouldering curtains and sprays of black mildew up interior walls. Cluttered up with millions of things that don’t do anything except get in your way and almost trip you over. It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.

But there’s so little change that the life gets sucked out of our lives, and for some reason I’m thinking of Joe vs the Volcano, which doesn’t have any zombies in it. Consumption makes us feel big and important and worthwhile, but it doesn’t satisfy. Consumerism takes the place of nourishment, and we come to be defined by our lack, the void we’re trying to fill but just can’t because our culture only gives us a choice between praying and buying shit, and for some of us neither is effective. Sometimes there’s a happy ending; sometimes there isn’t. I like it when characters can find a new sort of normal, a life that has both comfort and meaning. Typically this has to do with love, as in Warm Bodies where love heals zombies and turns them back into people. That’s not quite Carey’s response, but the books still ends well.

Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.

But you have to open it to find that out.

The title of the book is a reference to Pandora, and that idea is important to the book. But it’s not just the world that Melanie opens to find hope amid the evils; it’s also herself. She’s at a prison school because she’s a zombie child. She doesn’t know that at first – she has to realize it and figure out what that means for her life. She has to face and accept her identity as something different from those around her, possibly dangerous to the one person she loves most. Some of the children can still think and act without the external stimuli necessary to move an adult zombie; some of the adult zombies carry on some normal activity as their brains fight back against the fungus, but nothing like the children, who can be completely normal right up until they smell a human being, a food source.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

And this is a more specific fear that comes on teachers and parents: that eventually the little maggots will consume us completely. They will demand and we will give until there is literally nothing left, just a bone husk as the miniature undead rip our flesh out with their teeth, devouring our essential bits and leaving the shell. I’ve got some students who talk and talk and talk nonstop (in Chinese), and I can feel their indifference sucking my life and willpower. My existence is draining away, a little every day. Teaching students who want to learn is invigorating and exciting; teaching students who don’t feels like dying slowly, consumptive and consumed, unnoticed and alone. In some ways I envy Miss Justineau; her children all pay attention and learn, like a bunch of little zombie geniuses. I could be okay with that.

I know, most of you who talk to me here are not really interested in zombies, but it’s a metaphor. And this is a really good and interesting book, regardless of the vehicle.

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