In the event of a zombie apocalypse, do you think you would survive? This seems to be a question asked a lot recently as zombie culture has taken over in the forms of video games, movies, television shows, and even books. However, the question that I want to ask is what happens if you do survive? What comes next?
Carrie Ryan’s debut novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth answers this question. This post-apocalyptic zombie novel (that never actually uses the word zombie) takes place seven generations after an infection turned most of the world into undead cannibals. This is the perfect setting to give us an idea of what it’s really like living in a world overrun by zombies. Ryan doesn’t glamorize it either:
“There is a child – a baby – who long since kicked off her blankets. Her skin is ashen and her mouth open in a perpetual yet silent scream. She isn’t old enough to roll over, to sit up, to climb. So she lies there kicking her fat legs against the footboard of the crib, eternally calling for her mother. For food. For flesh.”
It’s chilling passages such as these that awaken the reader to the harsh realities of a life where zombies (or the Unconsecrated) are commonplace. A world where every day may be your last and not even children are safe.
Mary’s village is the only civilized place left in the world…or so she’s told. According to the leaders of the village (the Sisterhood and the Guardians) nothing exists beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth. A fence surrounds the entire village, protecting it from the forest that lies beyond. The entire population was killed off during the Return, with the exception of their village, making it imperative to stay behind the fence and not push the boundaries.
It’s after Mary loses her family to the Unconsecrated that she realizes the fence doesn’t just keep the zombies out; it also keeps her in. Once the fence is breached and the Unconsecrated make their way into the village, Mary and her friends decide to escape. They flee the only place they have ever known in hopes of finding something more. What they find is love, loss, and perhaps more questions than answers.
What makes The Forest of Hands and Teeth so unique is that it’s not as much about the zombies as it is about the people who are affected by them. Ryan wasted little time explaining how the infection spread but rather delved into the personal lives of her characters. The entire book is told from first-person from the perspective of the main character Mary. Though selfish at times, she is a good character to view the story from because she has dealt with so much loss and has been so affected by the Unconsecrated. It’s through her that Ryan allows us to look at the fragility of life:
“Suddenly, all I can think about are all the things I don’t know about him. All the things I never had time to learn. I don’t know if his feet are ticklish or how long his toes are. I don’t know what nightmares he had as a child. I don’t know which stars are his favorites, what shapes he sees in the clouds. I don’t know what he is truly afraid of or what memories he holds closest. And I don’t have enough time now, never enough time. I want to be in the moment with him, feel his body against mine and think of nothing else, but my mind explodes with grief for all that I am missing. All that I will miss. All that I have wasted.”
This novel is about so much more than zombies. It’s a painful reminder that we only have so much time and when it’s gone, that’s it.
Another aspect that I enjoyed about this book was that it’s different from the bulk of dystopian novels that are out there. This book had less of a focus on a tyrannical governments and futuristic technology. Instead, it allowed the reader to actually explore this society that isn’t too far off from the one we live in. Well, you know, if we also had to constantly worry about fending off zombie attacks.
Ryan’s perspective forces us to stop romanticizing zombies, but to actually think of the struggles that go along with them: “And I wonder if there was ever a crueler world than this one that forces us to kill the people we love most.” When someone is scratched or bitten by the Unconsecrated they become infected. Infection can take a few days, but once it’s complete you become a flesh-hungry monster incapable of feeling emotions or recalling memories. So when someone you love becomes infected you are faced with the choice of putting them out of their misery or letting them turn and surrendering them to the forest. There’s no easy solution and Carrie Ryan capture the direness of the situation flawlessly.
The end of this book will leave you hungering for more of this world that Ryan has created. Luckily this is the first of a trilogy. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is followed by The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, both of which have already been released.This book does a fantastic job at setting you up for the rest of the story without leaving you hanging at the end. It could be read as a stand-alone since the story picks up in the next book with a different set of characters but I’d recommend checking out the entire trilogy. You won’t regret it.