For quite a while now, people whose reading judgement I trust have been saying to me “you must read this book.” Instead of encouraging me to rush out and immerse myself in whatever narrative is being recommended, a kind of reluctance, an inertia to do as I am bid, creeps over me. This occurs for two reasons: one, I’m afraid that the suggested book will fall short of my growing expectations and that I’ll be disappointed. This leads to the second reason which is, how do I tell someone who loved the book so much they wanted me to share the experience that it fell short? Will it be the end of a friendship, the end of exchanging novel ideas?; the exclusion from the all-important book-sharing club? Will my friend think less of me if I don’t like it as much as he or she did? I find these notions always beset me when I am told I “must” read a particular book. That I am often far from disappointed when I finally do doesn’t seem to matter, the apathy/fear hits me time and time again and makes me procrastinate about starting the new title.
I am a damn fool. If I’d listened to those who told me I must read World War Z by Max Brooks a couple of years ago and since sooner, I could have had the incredible, exhilarating, heart-wrenching, fist-clenching, teeth-grinding, anxiety-provoking experience reading it was much, much earlier.
Would I have wanted that? Hell. Yeah.
I may as well get it out of the way upfront; World War Z was not what I expected. I knew it was a “zombie story” and, having read and loved Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (again, a recommended “must-read” that didn’t disappoint me one iota) and being absolutely enthralled by the Walking Dead Compendium by Robert Kirkman et. Al (and TV show), I shouldn’t have stereotyped Brooks’ novel (no relation BTW) as a lighter-weight version of what had already been done magnificently – but I did. More fool me. Admittedly, seeing shorts for the Brad Pitt film fuelled that notion and, while I love that type of full-scale action-adventure in my film, I desire something a little more intelligent, psychological, challenging and probing in my zombie novels.
Enter World War Z – from stage right left and every other conceivable direction. I finally bought it and began reading it… Well. This book grasped me by the imagination, throat and soul and didn’t let me go. To call it remarkable is to undersell it. Brooks’ work is an erudite, humane, political, emotional and psychological reckoning of what happens when humanity turns on itself – when the enemy is already dead and killing fellow humans who might not agree with your religion, ideology, culture, sexual preferences or anything else, simply adds to their ranks and places the future of the planet at greater risk.
Let me explain without spoilers. The book is set ten years after a decade-long war with zombies has all but finished and is basically the remnants (the humanity component) of a report that was commissioned by an organisation to record for posterity what occurred in the lead up to mass infection, during the outbreak and consequently. The lead investigator has taken it upon himself to include unique stories from all the people and countries he visits, much to the chagrin of his boss who feels that history wants facts only. But, as the investigator (who is largely absent from the novel) states: “what’s history without humanity?” Indeed.
So, World War Z is what’s been left out of the official report. As such, it’s a collection of very personal accounts and opinions, a memory bank if you like, of a huge variety of people. From an astronaut stranded in a space station, to a marketeer looking to profit from fear, to Japan, China, Uruguay, Russia, the United States, Mexico, and many, many other countries big and small; from veterans, to teachers to blind gardeners and everything in between, this other report is the voices of those who aren’t normally heard. It’s a testimony, their testimonies of what they feared, endured, survived and their memories of the times and those who didn’t. It’s what they were forced to do to simply survive, to recognise what they could either raise or lower themselves to do when everything, absolutely everything is at stake.
It’s also about how individuals from different cultures, backgrounds, ages and occupations, with different needs, wants and desires, respond to a threat that has never before been imagined or experienced.
I found this way of writing, the whole concept behind this book, utterly extraordinary. While the threat of zombies underpins the action and is the narrative drive, it’s also about so much more. Brooks manages to inhabit every character, no matter who they are, where they’re from or how brief their story. There’s a gravitas and respect for what’s being shared, what’s being exposed and this is felt in every word and page. I didn’t want this to end and yet, I did. It’s harrowing, amazing, thrilling and above all, it’s humane.
Now I am joining the ranks of those who say, “you must read this book”. It doesn’t matter if you think you “like” zombies or not. In this instance, it’s irrelevant. If you’re reticent like I was to start with, I do understand but all I can do is urge you to ignore this feeling so you don’t have any regrets – the regret I didn’t “know” this book sooner.
For now, I am going to read it again.