Tuesday, 26 October 2010
‘Breathers (A Zombie’s Lament)’ – S.G. Browne (Broadway Books)
Andy Warner died in a car crash almost two years ago but was up and walking (well, shambling) again not long after the fateful day. However, Andy has been‘re-born’ into a world where zombies aren’t necessarily destroyed on sight but a lack of basic human rights brings new meaning to the term ‘living death’. Having food thrown at you all day is the least of your worries if you’re a zombie, stray zombies stand a very good chance of becoming practice dummies for trainee plastic surgeons...
Andy is understandably having a few difficulties adjusting to his new ‘life’ but he has the support of his friends at the local branch of ‘Undead Anonymous’ to help him through the day. All this is about to change though when a rogue zombie offers Andy and his friends the chance to sample human flesh. All of a sudden, Andy has something to live for and he’s not going to give it all up without a fight.
As much as there’s something appealing about a full blown zombie apocalypse you have to wonder if it would happen these days; I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we’d be ready for it and stamp it down pretty damn quick. The question then is what to do with all the zombies left over (as well as all the new ones appearing on the scene)? S.G. Browne gives us his vision of this particular scenario and marries it nicely to his main character’s search for meaning.
The bottom line is this, if you don’t want zombies to eat human flesh then you make sure that there’s no way they get to find out just how tasty it is. Zombies the world over are not only downtrodden but kept very firmly in their place by the fact that life always swings in favour of regular humans (‘Breathers’). When zombies have thoughts and feelings (instead of being mindless eating machines), this method of control is beautiful in its simplicity. Browne uses this approach to expand his scenario into something that works across the board and is plausible. You can believe that this is how it could all turn out although I’m still wondering how you would keep zombies off the internet...
Having set the scene, Browne then goes on not only to show us that it works but also to explore his characters in terms of how they react to their environment; I’m talking both the living and the undead here. While the end result can come across as being deliberately forced into the message that Browne wants to give his reader (things maybe don’t flow as naturally, in the overall picture, as you would expect); there are still some touching moments of zombie characters trying to deal with prejudice and make their own way in the world, despite the ‘disability’ that restricts them.
Some zombies take to the streets in order to take back their freedom while others make adjustments in order to live their lives without fear of attack from Breathers. Others just act the way they’ve always acted and to hell with the consequences! What we see though is a level of humanity that is thrown into sharp relief by the rotting flesh it is forced to wear. Andy, Rita and the rest all have their dreams and Browne forces us to question whether the fact that they are zombies should be reason enough for them not to pursue these dreams. You may not meet a zombie in real life but you will find yourself questioning how you see other people after reading this book.
In the early stages of the book, Andy cannot talk and this naturally limits his interactions with his friends. What Browne does do though is to use Andy’s enforced introspection to progress him along to certain conclusions a lot more quickly and the story itself moves a lot faster as a result. He’s a fun character to follow in this respect as being a zombie hasn’t blunted his natural sense of humour (although the internal monologues can drag a little at times). We also get the chance to have closer look at certain other characters, there’s only so much Andy can do and the rest of the space has to be filled somehow. Browne paints a really poignant picture of a group of people all trying to do what they think is the right thing; the tragedy is that their views all differ on this... Because of this, you can see the ending coming but it’s no less powerful when it arrives. There’s only one way for a zombie to really achieve empowerment and it’s the one thing that Breathers fear the most. There’s only way this tale can end and there’s no way it can be a happy ending.
One part humorous, one part tragic but overall a novel that makes you think about what it means to be human. ‘Breathers’ isn’t without it’s flaws but it’s still a novel that you’d do well to pick up if you want to know what zombies with brains are really capable of, as oppose to zombies that just want to eat brains...
Nine and Quarter out of Ten