Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion

by Alison Stedman
Published by Vintage Books, 2010

When I thought about reviewing Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, I thought this would be a great opportunity to make fun of a book – the whole premise just seemed so absurd. The Romeo-and-Juliet romance of a zombie and a living girl? Really? What were they going to do?  Eat each other’s brains?

Isaac Marion’s storytelling subverted my expectations. Beautifully written, this novel is packed with strong Moments.  Moments that produced for me the deepest sympathy with a zombie, of all creatures; with a dying world; with its citizens who have given up hope; with its citizens who cling desperately to it. It took me a while to get over the absurdity of the plot, but once hooked, I had to see the story through to the end.

Earth is under a curse. It seems that there is no hope; the planet and the living people on it are doomed and dying.  The governments of the world have collapsed, and those who remain are locked up in massive enclaves like the “Stadium”.  They spend their time subsisting on Carbtein and strictly rationed food, and training their children to kill zombies.  The Undead prowl the abandoned city beyond the Stadium in growing numbers, apparently as unquestioning as the living.  Zombies eat people, and people kill zombies. That is how it is, and that is how it has to be.

“R” is a zombie.  All he can dredge from the vagueness of his former identity is a phoneme, the first letter of his name.  On a hunting trip with a group of zombies he comes across Julie, a living girl who is on a salvage mission in the city with other Stadium-dwellers. “R” inexplicably decides to save her (after he has eaten her boyfriend, Perry, of course).

When “R” rescues her, taking her to the abandoned airport where the zombies live, the beginnings of change set in.  The balance is disturbed.  Some of the zombies begin to break from their leaders, and begin to question their appetite for human flesh and the deadness of their own souls.  “R” and Julie develop a daring plan to change the world, to restore hope to the apparently doomed human race … but are both sides too entrenched in the supposed inevitability of their war to welcome this?

There are problems with this novel.  I felt at times that the balance between tragedy and comedy was not managed well, with jokes slipping in at inappropriate times. Call me a nitpicker if you will, but I was also slightly annoyed by the tendency of Julie to “chuckle”. This was a hallmark of Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, too, and I did not find it particularly helpful – teenage girls and mysterious vampires are not supposed to sound like Santa Claus.

More importantly, there were moments in which I could just not believe the plot.  It is obviously very difficult to transition between a captor-prisoner relationship – when the captor has just eaten the prisoner’s friends – and a relationship of love and forgiveness, and I think this was handled a little clumsily.  Julie recovers her composure remarkably quickly.

Also, although the Julie who appears later in the novel is attractive, unique and inspiring, I have trouble being inspired by the Julie we see earlier on.  Compared to her boyfriend, whose memories we see as “R” eats his brains, she seems drab and a little silly.  She just doesn’t seem special enough to cause such a dramatic change in a zombie.

All the same, if the reader sticks with it, Julie becomes more wonderful.  By the end, I cared very much about the characters.  And there is a lot about this novel that redeems these other things. It’s exciting, it’s thoughtful, it’s eloquent.  Though set in a dying world, it will make the reader question the way we live life in a world that is still fresh and vibrant.  It is a sweet story, somehow, despite the bloodthirstiness of half its characters.

Marion has really entered with spirit into his premise, making me believe it.  Imaginative details abound, and he presents life in such a world with great sympathy and humour. Most of all, the beautifully written Moments remain, making this novel something special, to be read with pleasure.

Warm Bodies comes out in the USA on March 8 and is already in bookstores in the UK.
Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2010, Alison Stedman