Zom-B, by Darren Shan

Zomb cvr

Spoilers

I do enjoy getting my teeth into a zombie book.  In this one ‘B’ is a pupil at a London school, a hard kid with an unenviable home life: a brutal racist father who is an arbitrary despot, and a doormat mother who gets walloped regularly, especially when dad has been drinking.  He hates anyone who isn’t white and he is involved in organisations whose members share his views.  B gets the back of his hand on occasion too, but rather than despising him is full of ambivalence, hating his domestic tyranny yet for some weird reason still loving him, absorbing – and expressing – some of his unsavoury views while experiencing dissonance from mixing with kids of all kinds at school and finding there that prejudice is hard to sustain, as attitude towards someone comes down to their personality more than colour.  Anyway, going along with dad, even if only on the surface, makes for a quiet(ish) life.  As a result B seems unpleasant on the surface, but is intelligent, and the reader can see that there is core of decency struggling for expression, just needing greater strength of character to show through.

Anyone expecting the zombie apocalypse to get going immediately will be disappointed.  Shan’s tagline on the cover is ‘The Master of Horror’, but on this evidence the epithet might need to be revoked.  After an initial attack in an Irish village the zombies are merely there in the background, talked about but not seen, until well over halfway through.  Before then we get plenty on B’s interactions with friends and family, plus race relations issues, in a slow build-up.  As it’s the first in a series of a dozen novels this delay may put readers off the other books.  Encouragement to try number two is provided by questions left hanging, like who is Owl Man, how does he know B’s dad, why is it that Mrs Reed is eating brains but hasn’t completely turned, is Mr Burke’s absence on the fateful day significant, who the albinos are, and so on.  That may make the reader turn to the second book, alternatively the answers may not seem important.

It’s a teen/young adult novel, so the language is perforce unrealistically restrained, and I cannot imagine that anyone has used the term ‘wally’ in an inner London school for many years (it’s one I remember from my school days, in what were more linguistically restrained times, usually expressed in the form ‘you wol’).  There’s none of the ripe language or slang, and particularly racial abuse given the characters involved, that one would expect in real life.  It does however depict, I suspect with depressing accuracy, a typical low-achieving comprehensive.

On the Big Twist, that ‘B’ is actually Becky rather than a boy, I can’t imagine many readers of any age will be surprised.  There were plenty of hints, apart from which it is always a reasonable assumption, especially since J K Rowling made it noteworthy that an author known simply by initials is actually female; in fact I was surprised to discover that S. J. Watson is a man.  I wonder how the Becky revelation might affect boys’ reading experience.  Surely a major point of this sort of book is to get literature-averse lads to read, but they might be put off by having a girl as the main character.  You only learn this definitively near the end so they will at least finish the book, and she seems to have more testosterone than anybody else in her coterie, which makes her an honorary boy I suppose, but on the other hand they might feel retrospectively cheated, and less likely to want to read the sequels.

Despite some graphic descriptions of zombies in action this is not really a daring book.  B’s racist father is shown to be a horrible man, if belatedly affectionate (the biggest twist of all), and in the end the novel is firmly supportive of multiculturalism, differences between the students paling into insignificance compared to the common threat they face from the zombies.  It’s ironic then that obeying her father’s shocking instruction to sacrifice a black boy in the group as they try to escape actually saves B’s life, giving a surely unintended message that in certain circumstances lack of empathy can pay off.  She immediately regrets it certainly, and the reader is made to think it was a Bad Thing to have done, but it worked.  Other than that the messages are all in the right direction.  Now if Shan really wanted to be transgressive and the master of horror, he could, rather than focusing on white racism which is a safe subject to explore when condemnatory, have included a non-white group of intolerant misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, supremacist bigots.  But then he wouldn’t have got his book into many school libraries.

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