So when this was the (first!) pick for a book club my best friend just launched, I just skimmed the goodreads blurb and ordered it. I didn't dwell too much on it, I had other things on my mind I just wanted to make sure I didn't forget.
Fast forward to about three weeks later--friends are texting, saying that they've finished it, and when will our brunch be? I start freaking out, because as usual when I have an external deadline for reading, I've been reading everything and anything else. Meanwhile, I'm gearing up for a week-long art camp I'm going to be teaching which is more than an hour's drive from home, every day. I put the physical volume back on the shelf and pop over to audible, since I know I wanna put all that driving time to good use.
Let me tell you. I was teaching 1-4 each day. I'd usually pull up to the gallery it was in at about 12:30. And I would sit there, AC running, listening to this book until 12:55. 12:58, on one memorable afternoon. I would sit there, eyes on the clock, fingers on the key, leaning into it and on the edge of my seat. I could not stop.
I didn't know until after, but this puppy has an Audie. It! Is! So! Deserved! Finty Williams brought the characters to life so beautifully. Melanie is at once so clueless and so wise; the adults so jaded and yet so hopeful. And Dr. Caldwell so chillingly scary.
This book was so fascinating, and it was as much thanks to the way it was told as to the plot and characters. So much of the text is the inner monologue of a rotating POV, which takes it from a simple zombie thriller up to something else: it becomes this psychological exploration of people at the end of the world. That is what brought this book from 4 to 5 stars for me, was the way it explored its characters mindspaces in such a deep way. I didn't just like and dislike them: I understood them. They all lived in a sort of grey area, and as I understood their pasts I was able to understand their presents. I watch them lie, and steal, and hide, and kill, and I completely get it.
As the book opens, Melanie is a young girl who lives in a cell. She's transported back and forth from a schoolroom in a comically secure wheelchair that allows only the most minor physical movement. She's a little girl whose daily routine includes a gun pointed at her head, and yet she is unfailingly polite and positive, even to the adults who she would be reasonable to despise. (This about her--her politeness--is part of what made this book so interesting. She was a completely fascinating character, from beginning to end. She's like any little girl, but more: she has this sort of otherworldly calm about her that's eerie and disconcerting. Which is such an amazing way for a little girl to intimidate people.)
Fast forward--the military base she's held in has fallen. She and a rag tag team of other characters (her teacher, the military Sergeant, the spooky ass Doctor who tried to dissect her, and a young military recruit) begin traipsing across the English countryside, trying to travel South to where the one last vestige of humanity, Beacon, hopefully still stands.
This is where things got really psychologically interesting--outside of Melanie, with whom there was never a dull moment. It becomes clearer and clearer with every page that it's not a guarantee that Beacon still exists. It's actually beginning to look fairly unlikely. The adult characters are all avoiding this fact, and you begin to ponder this weird state of mind--after all, if they can't run towards Beacon, where can they run? There's nothing left. The world has ended. They're just fighting out the last few battles.
All but one. Dr. Caldwell truly believes that with the right equipment (and the right specimens) she can save the world. She can concoct a cure, or a vaccine, and they'll all see. (They'll all see! They shouldn't have doubted her! I can envision her in a Dexter-style lab getup, shaking her fist at the sky.) Caldwell is clearly deranged, but the sort of cockeyed-scientific coldness that drives her is just as fascinating to watch play out as any point of view in the book.
Carey does such a phenomenal job of making you as interested in what's happening (and what's going to happen) as you are in the inner lives of the characters. I was on the edge of my seat (literally) dying to find out what would happen next, and at the same time, I never felt impatient with the passages about characters' pasts, or how they were experiencing and coping with the events of the novel. It was all so vital to the book.
Let's talk cons. My major (and really, only) issue with this book is the junkers. They make no sense to me! Society began crumbling only a little over 20 years ago in this book. How has there already evolved this sort of under-developed sub-society of scavenging murderers? When they attack the base, I get it: their motive is obvious. They want the base's resources. Their methodology is ballsy and interesting, the way they've wrangled up some Hungries to lay siege. What I don't get is their bloodthirst.
Justineau describes the moment the young boy is going to kill her as ritualistic, like a rite of passage between Father and son. This is what made them so unbelievable for me. It felt like instead of a reasonable scavenging society, Joseph Conrad had dropped by to throw in an absurd, animalistic tribe of villains.
That aside, this book was one of my favorites I've read this year, and one of my favorite audiobooks of all time. And that ending. Wow. Five stars.