You’ve gotta love a novel about hardship and destruction that’s also a nicely crafted happiness machine – particularly when the hardship comes in the form of zombies, creatures whose prime motive is the consumption of the public, and whose ideas of happiness differ from yours and mine.
Zombie fiction has a buy-in level of discomfort, inviting us to consider ourselves as both prey and undead carnivores, and to understand the most interesting aspect of modern life as its constant and domino-like proximity to doom. The discomfort is especially acute in this book by Alison Evans, whose first young adult novel, Ida, won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award. Where zombies go, social breakdown is often seen to follow, but Evans does away with the usual distinctions between the characters’ struggles in their lives before the outbreak and the perils of existence among the walking dead.
Some of the protagonists live in a share house far enough away from population centres that at first the outbreak barely registers – they’re busy hanging out and playing in their band. Sharing a strong desire to escape society, they are not of the view that the world before the zombies came was “nice”. Fraternal twins Jojo and Rhea have a kind and busy mum who works in a hospital, probably the place you’d least like to be when infectious cannibalism hits your city. But is she feeling pressured to get back to work because the workplace is unusually demanding or for some more sinister reason?
This is just one of the disconcerting questions that wreath Highway Bodies, many left deliberately open. The upshot is a weird and rewarding book, set in Victoria’s small towns and Melbourne’s suburbs, prowling along highways and through the bush. Evans revels in the cleverness of their characters, offering a suite of alternating unconventional voices. They demonstrate the coolness, clear-headedness and franticness of youth, just as likely to correctly assess a deadly situation as they are to giggle as they take out zombies. They also sound very, very Aussie – people don’t run in this book, they pissbolt.
Most of the leads are also queer or non-binary, and these qualities are presented normatively throughout. They combine with other details to evoke world-weary characters real enough to care for deeply. The plot keeps gnawing at the edges of its genre, leaving readers stressed and keeping them guessing.
Echo, 208pp, $22.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Alison Evans, Highway Bodies ". Subscribe here.