‘The Reapers Are the Angels’ by Alden Bell

3 09 2010

'The Reapers Are The Angels' by Alden Bell, 304 pp, Tor, ISBN: 9780230748644

[Reviewed by Sharon Ring]

The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell is a novel aimed, in part, at the young adult market. Why, then, am I reviewing a book which would normally pass under my radar? Two reasons.

The first is zombies. Yes, I know they’re everywhere on screen and in movies right now. I love them – I can’t help it. Whether they are the slow, shuffling variety most favoured in literature and cinema or the fast-moving rabid zombies of movies like 28 Days Later, zombies are the wreakers of havoc. And where havoc is wreaked, I’ll be there: watching the movies and reading the books.

The second reason is post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction. This sort of fiction is utterly fascinating. It may be dealing with the apocalyptic event itself and its immediate aftermath: it may leap into the future to the long-term consequences and mankind’s struggle to restructure some semblance of civilisation. No matter where it begins and in which direction it travels, fiction which describes a broken society and the people left behind excels at putting the human species under a microscope and showing us the very best and worst of ourselves.

The novel begins with a miracle. Temple, the protagonist, is living on a small island just off the coast of Florida. Its only building, a lighthouse, has been deserted for years and Temple is now leading a solitary existence. She has a simple routine, an order to her life which escape to the island has allowed her in recent weeks. The miracle happens at night, under a bright moon, when she’s down by the shore. Standing ankle-deep in the water, she spies tiny iridescent fish swimming around her feet. The bright moon and beautifully coloured fish create a moment of sheer magic for Temple who is, essentially, still very much a child despite being halfway through her teens.

The world changed and zombies, or meatskins, as they are called in this story came into existence before Temple was born and some years before the narrative begins. This is the only world she has ever known and, after bearing witness to a child-like Temple, someone who can take pure delight in the beauty of nature, we are drawn back into that world and begin to learn how Temple has managed to survive on her own for the past few years.

What follows is part road-trip, part coming-of-age tale and part examination of the human condition as seen through Temple’s eyes.

Three thoughts in particular arose from my reading of this book, three threads which not only hold the narrative together but also serve to make it stand out from the crowd in recent novels of a similar nature.

The first of these threads is the difference in how Temple views herself and how the reader actually sees her. Temple is tough, unforgiving and riddled with guilt. Glimpses into her past offer clues as to how this guilt came to form such an overriding part of her psychological make-up. She shuns the larger groups of survivors yet at the same time yearns for their company, never quite grasping what it means to belong and always assuming she’ll have to move on sooner or later. What the reader sees is a young woman who, denied a real childhood, has carved out an identity which remains largely impenetrable to anyone she encounters. She has witnessed, and been a victim of, sights and events to which no child should ever be subjected. Where Temple assigns herself guilt and shame, the reader can see all that Temple has endured and all she has had to do to survive: the shame and guilt are, perversely, a means of self-protection.

The second and third of these threads are more tightly connected. Throughout the novel Temple meets with many other survivors, sometimes as individuals, other times encountering larger communities. To me, each of these encounters have a double purpose. They are both a reflection of how the human race will constantly strive to form a coherent society, no matter how warped that society may seem from the outside looking in: they are also a strong reflection of all the potential carried by Temple herself, for both good and bad.

Two relationships in particular are forged and these serve as especially strong mirror images of Temple. In one large community, Temple is forced to kill a young man, Abraham, who attempts to rape her. She flees the community, pursued by Abraham’s older brother, Moses. He agrees with her during one encounter that she had to do what was necessary and that his brother had been a bad person but he is also honour-bound to avenge Abraham’s death, even if that means oblivion for himself. His pursuit is relentless, as is Temple’s desire to survive and it takes the entire novel for the two characters to eventually resolve the feud, one way or another. The other relationship is with a young man who Temple finds in a deserted town as he’s trying to carry his deceased grandmother away from the meatskins. He’s a mute and, although it’s never made completely clear to the reader, quite possibly autistic. Temple’s initial indecision about bringing him along on her journey crops up again throughout the narrative as she is often thinking about ways to dump him along the road. Her sense of responsibility keeps kicking in, however: she is as honour-bound as Moses to do what she feels is the right thing.

The Reapers Are The Angels is an exceptionally well-crafted novel. It has depth and beauty which is no easy task to convey in a zombie novel. Alden Bell has much to be proud of with this book.

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