There's horror in this novel, but it is not the horror of the relentless machine-like zombie, hungry for your flesh. It is the horror of man losing his moral center, the horror of man without ambiguity, his subjectivity erased, unthinking and deprived of ethical autonomy.
(If some parts of this review seem a bit obsucre that is because I didn't want to spoil the reading experience too much. But still, there are some minor spoilers ahead.)
The plot is basic and straightforward. Humanity is on the brink of being wiped out by a fungus that turns infected people into 'hungries'. On an army base, situated in infected territory, scientist Catherine Caldwell is looking for a cure, sometimes performing tests on live subjects caught by Sergeant Parks and his men. Helen Justineau - a teacher at the base - strongly opposes these tests and while Justineau and Caldwell are having a fierce brawl over the subject of Carolines next intended vivisection, the base is overrun by survivalists called 'junkers'. Our protagonists are forced to flee and followed by hungries, feral children and junkers they now must try to find their way back to 'Beacon', a guarded non-infected zone. The road is fraught with danger, Caldwell continuous to try to solve the riddle of the infection but eventually they must perform their last stand. Inevitably, the fate of humanity is decided in the process.
This is however, not a story about survival. Yes, there is gore and blood. Yes, there are graphic depictions but these elements are mostly used to set a scene or to sketch the serious predicament of the leftover survivors. Once this is established, the story flows naturally from the interesting characters who play out serious moral dilemma's.
In essence, this is a love story. It's about the love of Melany, a young girl, for her school teacher. It's about her dream of keeping Miss Justineau safe from harm. And it's about Miss Justineau's strong conviction that the scientist, Caldwell, is wrong in performing tests on her pupils. A conviction she is willing to fight for, whatever the consequences, like Sophocles's Antigone in ancient Thebes. Caldwell the scientist sees the children as test-objects. They are animals, to be tested, dissected and put under a microscope. Or to be tested in the classroom by psychologists and teachers. They are the real dehumanising forces at work here. Reducing the children to mere statistics and raw material for research. Because they are not human, right? So we are free use them. Because, let's face it, the destiny of humanity is at stake here. But Justineau sees things differently. She has seen - as Levinas, the french philosopher puts it - the face of the Other. She cannot any longer deny the demand of the Other, or deny its manifest call out for a subjective response. It is the ethical reflex that is the foundation of our subjectivity and not the other way around. Looked at it from that perspective, Caldwell is as much a Zombie as a flesh eating hungry. In denying the faces of her test subjects she puts wisdom before love and hides her subjectivity behind numbers and chemical formulas. And as the other protagonists - like sergeant Parks and private Gallager - also begin to see the 'face' of Melany, they too are confronted with these issues and questions. Consequently they start to display more elements of their subjectivity hitherto obscured by their military uniform. And once agin the question turns. Is this a good thing? Does this not make them more vulnerable as soldiers? And so these issues are continually acted out in the protagonists many interactions, confounded by doubts, responsibilities and perils.
The combination of these well drawn characters, a fast paced plot and a satisfying ending makes this a very recommendable book. It is about zombies, but it could just as well be about the zombie in each of us. I listened to the audio version, beautifully read by Finty Williams. I gave this book three stars on Goodreads. It just missed its fourth star because of a slightly rushed ending and the fact that the junkers could have been used to better effect, especially later on in the story (from which they are absent).