This is a lyrical, wistful take on the world generations after the zombie apocalypse. Humanity has fractured, and fallen, and finally the only enclave of people left is Mary’s village. Mary herself is coming of age in a world filled with the living undead. Her village is ruled by the Sisterhood, who have established a rhythm to the years that both preserves the lives of the village’s inhabitants and keeps at bay the ravenous Unconsecrated hordes. The fence surrounding the village is strong, as is the will of Sister Tabitha, who’s got her eye on Mary. Mary’s mother raised her on semi-blasphemous stories of the ocean and the world before the Unconsecrated. Mary herself has nursed a secret hope to one day see this ocean, a hope she knows is impossible, what with it being the zombie apocalypse and all.
Anyways, Mary doesn’t really question her place in the village, until the day Harry, not Travis, asks to court her. On this same day, her mother is bitten. Mary sits with her mother as she turns, and then is herself isolated in the Cathedral for several days. She is released into a new world — neither Harry nor Travis is willing to court her, and her brother has essentially disowned her. There’s no place for a single, unattached adult in the village, and so Mary is forced to return to the isolation of the Sisterhood and the mysteries of the Cathedral. However, the mysteries of her world are bigger than the Sisterhood itself. When the fence is breached, Mary and her friends discover ANOTHER fence, one protecting a ramshackle path traveling away from the village. This path (and the unknown destination at its end) is their only hope for survival.
The nuances of this text are so delicate, it’s hard for me to say exactly how awesome this book. Firstly, the prose is tight. Here’s the passage that originally drew me to this work:
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.
A longer excerpt from the first chapter is available here.
Anyways, note how the above is fluid and lovely, and not about zombies. What I’m saying is that the prose is tight, as is the characterization. The Unconsecrated are a constant presence, yes, but Mary, Cass, Harry, and Travis all emerge as vital characters. This extended meditation on the nature of love in a world gone totally undead truly considers the impact living in such a world would have on one’s psyche. Then, this impact is thoroughly explored. In some ways this is kind of a downer; what hope can there be in a world where the dead rise? At the same time, Mary’s fervent faith in the ocean and its beauty — a faith she retains ever after she’s lost hope in the existence of God — constantly drives the story forward.
In a genre often overly enamored with its social conceits, horrified starlets, and gore, The Forest of Hands and Teeth stands out as a delicate character study. Its lyricism guarantees that it will be a rewardingly creepy re-read.