The central character of Isaac Marion’s ‘Warm Bodies’, R (full name never revealed) begins the story as a lumbering zombie with a penchant for human brains, a fairly standard craving in zombie media and literature. Devouring this most vital of human organs provides him with essential nourishment and energy to continue his purgatorial existence, moving steadily from victim to victim in the process. The experience of reading ‘Warm Bodies’ is, to this reviewer, akin to the sensations R must enjoy when consuming his victims’ gray matter- a rich, pleasurable, slow-burning treat of a novel, that leaves you feeling like you’ve digested a wholly satisfying meal by the end.
Wandering the deserted corridors of an airport in an unexplained dystopian future, R searches for answers and meaning in his seemingly futile existence, inwardly as articulate and thoughtful as any living person, but limited to grunts and monosyllabic utterances whenever he attempts to speak aloud. During a fateful attack on a group of human resistance fighters, R consumes the brain of their leader Perry, and immediately finds himself blindsided as the memories and emotions of the dead man, particularly his feelings for fellow fighter and ex-girlfriend Julie, suddenly become R’s own. Spiriting her to safety away from the ravenous hunger of the rest of his kind, R slowly becomes besotted with the girl, and attempts to improve his communication skills as small, subtle changes in his physiology gradually begin to transform him.
‘Warm Bodies’, unlike other, bleaker zombie fare like ‘28 Days Later’ or ‘The Walking Dead’, reads like a dark fairy tale. The Romeo and Juliet parallels are obvious, from the similar names to the star-crossed element, with a balcony scene even making its way into the narrative. But the novel goes beyond ‘Twilight’-esque romantic tropes so common on Young Adult bookshelves. ‘Warm Bodies’ is a study of human degradation and the long struggle back to the connections and everyday experiences we all take for granted. The cause of the apocalypse that R and Julie find themselves in is never truly explained, nor does it need to be, but among the several possibilities hinted at by Marion is the work of a curse or black magic. This theory is certainly supported by the gradual transformation of R’s physiology as he begins to fall in love, from numb, undead and decomposing, to slowly turning back towards something resembling a living human. It’s a transformation so patiently and exquisitely executed by the author that it feels like a slow spell: some benevolent magic activated by the old fairy tale conceit of true love that slowly, very slowly, begins to lift the curse of living death that R, and by extension all humanity, have found themselves placed under.
It’s a pace of storytelling that also allows the reader’s hope, like R’s, to evolve from dormant and barely aware, to fully blossoming and yearning for a happy ending and a better life. Early on, R ruminates on how much more socially connected and close humanity must have been before its mysterious descent, when in truth we, as readers, know that, if anything, mankind is in many ways more isolated and withdrawn from each other than we have ever been (a concept brilliantly realised by an early vision/flashback scene in the film adaptation, in which travellers through the airport walk past once another plugged into or occupied by every variety of electronic device possible). It’s an early sense of irony that is deliberately placed to dishearten us, and, on some level, make us feel that R’s hopes and beliefs are somehow false or naïve from the outset, making the slow drawing out of optimism represented by his growing feelings for Julie all the more rewarding, as we begin to hope against hope that things might change.
R’s characterisation is wonderful, Marion’s decision to make us privy to his fully articulate inner thoughts from the beginning, while all the time making him unable to speak them aloud, forging an intimacy between us and his protagonist, almost as though we ourselves have consumed R’s thoughts as surely as he does Perry’s, and enabling us to share in the frustrations he feels. We see Julie through R’s eyes, and thus find ourselves falling for her (or indeed, the idea of the future she may represent) alongside him, exemplified by an excellent scene late in the novel in which R overhears a former fling boasting about her in crude, intimate terms, and we are right there with him as he struggles, and fails, to contain a poisonous jealousy that ultimately spills over into violent rage.
His limited knowledge about the answers and details of his world, meanwhile, allow many aspects of his environment to remain eerie and mysterious for the reader, most notably the true nature of the novel’s villainous force, the skeletal ‘Boneys’- on the surface, seemingly an inevitable later stage of R and his kind’s decomposition, yet hinted at by Marion as something altogether more sinister and unconnected- potentially even extra-terrestrial. It’s little hints like these that make ‘Warm Bodies’ so layered, subtle and rich, with nothing about this world ever truly certain or completely knowable, making R’s apparent gradual transformation back into a human feel entirely plausible, and not the fanciful terrain of sudden magical restorations to be found at the end of many a Disney film- it’s so much more elegant than that.
One superior element the novel enjoys over the movie adaptation (as much as this reviewer loved that film) is the nature of Julie’s father, General Grigio. The story’s main antagonist apart from the Boneys, Grigio is a genuinely threatening presence, a clear obstacle to Julie and R’s potential happiness. His eventual fate sends goosebumps across the skin, and further reinforces the sense that this is not a world of viruses or science gone wrong, but something much more primal and metaphysical.
‘Warm Bodies’ feels like a slow walk back to happiness from a bleak, dark premise. Early on, Marion describes the zombie plague as the result of mankind having reached the bottom of the universe through its greed, and continuing to dig. In many respects, this beautifully crafted story feels like a physical crawl out of that same abyss little by little- R climbing his way up towards the light alongside the reader. When we finally emerge out into the sun, the sense of reward, of having escaped the darkness in the pit below us, is all the more blissful.
A beautifully paced story of redemption, with the reader closely bonded to the central character from the very first page.