I hate zombie novels. They make me groan and roll my eyes, perhaps a little unfairly and perhaps a little judgementally. I do try, however, to read a novel from each genre that irritates me, every now and then, in order to confirm my fears and give me an argument to back up my inward crying. So did this novel do as I expected? You know, I’m really not too sure.
I was a little worried that ‘Wayne’, my (now ex) colleague, would colour my view of his book. Perhaps Wayne’s lilting Irish accent would follow me through the pages, leaving me to lose ‘Simmons’ the writer and the tale he has to tell but my worry, it turns out, was entirely unfounded. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly Wayne left my side, as Simmons sucked me into his story (biting my hand and dragging me along infectiously maybe – or is that one just a little too obvious?) This very fact alone is a testament to his writing, for I do not forget easily (oh my, I can’t decide if that makes me sound more like an elephant or gangster).
The story itself is a rather stereotypical zombie apocalypse novel (except, I’m sure, for those die-hard zombie connoisseurs who could detail each and every nuance of zombie literature but I am far from one of those and thus, it remains pretty much firmly in my one and only ‘zombie novel’ category – sorry zombie dudes). There is an epidemic, lots of people die but rise again to bite and infect others. There is lots of gore and blood and bits of brains – all the usual stuff to be expected (and perhaps a little too much to have any impact – ‘desensitised’ has become my word of the hour and I have fallen in love with subtlety all over again). The characters, too, are typical horror-novel types. Two dimensional, stereotypical, meaningless, and sometimes hard to tell apart. Let’s be honest though, when you pick up a zombie apocalypse novel, this is pretty much what you’re looking for and it certainly isn’t something you can complain about. After all, it’s meant to be about the zombies, the gore and the at-times humorously ridiculous descriptions (“diseased lungs slapped against the wall like oily pancakes” could only possibly have been written to make the reader guffaw and then quote it to a bemused looking partner and an even more bemused looking dog).
There were other bits that irritated me too – gratuitous gore (the welding torch scene – ew!), repetitive phrases (‘good God’, ‘dear God’, ‘but it was too late’), getting confused between Geri and Karen. But the one thing that irritated me the most (and this is me being brutally honest here, despite my usual disposition) is that I actually really enjoyed reading this book. I read it in two sittings alone – the pleasantly short chapters inducing that ‘just one more…’ culture that usually results in my falling asleep with a book on my face, wedged open, of course, by my subconsciously stiffened and determined thumb. This did, indeed happen with this novel, as it kept me reading way past my bed time. I just couldn’t resist reading one more chapter, to see how this or that turned out or to follow the characters on the journey of survival.
The characters themselves, as I mentioned above, meant nothing to me and I doubt I will remember them. Their plight, however, and their drive to survive, enchanted me. I was (always am) curious about survival in bad times – epidemics, war, the apparently impending apocalypse, and so on. Dystopian tales have always intrigued me and have always been a staple on my reading (and in fact viewing) list. Thus, Flu appealed to me in that sense. Simmons did this really well too – looking at different types of people, different sections of society, different mind sets and how each worked to survive in his or her own world. I was also fascinated by the question of whether people would band together (like Lark and the police) or pull apart (like the army dudes, or Paddy). I really like the fact that Simmons portrayed both in his novel, making it more realistic, more believable and far more interesting than the alternative. Simmons’ ability to create such a good tale in this respect, furthermore, allowed me to skim over the zombie parts and as far as I am concerned, enriched the story to no end.
Another thing that I was surprised at was the amount of politics that Simmons introduced. Although I would have liked this to go a little deeper (I would definitely have liked to learn more about Irish politics – I accept that I could simply read history books but it wouldn’t have quite the same charm or authenticity), it is definitely one aspect of the novel that enthralled me. I was pleased when the Pat or Jackson sections came along and it is these two characters (perhaps along with Gallagher) who are the ones that were the best-rounded and three dimensional – even if dislikeable. Perhaps because they had more of a history than the others or perhaps because their stories were steeped in something bigger than flippant drug use, lost loved ones, and driving taxis. Either way, the political commentary that Simmons laces through his narrative is eye-catching, unusual, and unexpected. A pleasant addition to the story.
Finally, the writing style itself was something to behold. Yes, it’s a little repetitive. Yes, it is peppered with humorously bad descriptions (intentional, I think?). But on the whole, Simmons has a lovely way words, creating beautiful descriptions and inventive simile. “[L]ike marbles in a tin”, “crystal bread crumbs”, “relative countryside calm of a post-apocalyptic hell” – rhythmic beacons shining through an otherwise gory and unpleasant land.
So did Flu change my mind about zombie novels? No, it certainly did not. But it did make me realise that sometimes, a good writer can enchant you, even in spite of the un-dead.
Review first published on Riley J’s website, along with lots more reviews, short stories, and general bookish posts.