Contaminated by Em Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I want to get something straight here, right at the beginning of this review. If you are looking for an action-packed, gut-spilling, bucket-of-blood gore fest, you’re not going to get it. You’re also not going to get the grave-bursting, brain-craving undead. This is not a traditional or clichéd zombie novel. Please don’t rush out, buy this book hoping for a YA World War Z, and then complain it’s not what you expected. Consider yourselves warned.
Contaminated is a nice slow burn. Instead of throwing shocking deaths and bed-wetting surprises on every page, it concentrates on an element that is much more vital to a good novel: character. Velvet is in her late teens. Her parents are missing and she has legal custody of her younger sister. Velvet goes to school part-time, holds down a job at a care home and is a mother to little Opal. The diet drink ThinPro turned much of the population into dangerous zombie-like creatures, and Velvet is trying to survive in a world that is dealing with the aftermath of that. The story is told from Velvet’s point of view and it is remarkable how far into her head and life the reader gets. If this book had been about her jumping about beheading the walking dead, I would have become very bored very quickly. But instead, we get to see her struggle in a world that’s already been shaken by death and terror. We see her cope with the change from a world where she was an ordinary child with school, a boyfriend and two normal parents, to a world where she’s on her own. She’s lost almost everything and is expected to behave like an adult and make adult decisions. For Velvet, coming of age means abandonment.
One of the things I love about Contaminated is the stark and very believable reality it portrays. The horror is not in shambling zombie people and their victims. The zombies are the victims. The horror is in the world the contamination has created. People affected by the diet drink (Connies) and not exterminated during the first few waves of infection, were either lobotomised or, later, fitted with special collars. Both methods ‘neutralise’ the Connie and allow relatives to take them home. That Connies wear these collars and are kept in kennels says something about the climate in which Velvet lives. There is a subtle little metaphor slipped in where Velvet see a pack of dogs running loose in her old neighbourhood. What does that say? It says the Victims of ThinPro are hunted, collared, kennelled and even put down – they are treated worse than animals and certainly far less than a human being.
There is a parallel between old age and the Connies. Connies have trouble doing everyday activities for themselves. Many of them need help bathing, eating and even going to the toilet. When a family member collects a Connie from the kennel, they get a complimentary adult diaper and a set of restraints. When you consider the horror ThinPro has caused and then have a look at the goodie bag the kennel gives out, it tells you all you need to know about how much help is available to care for a family member. Assisted housing, transport, carers allowance – nothing is set up to encourage or help someone care for another individual. Just like real life. I was a carer for my grandfather for many years. He suffered from dementia and had mobility problems. But in order for both of us to survive, I had to work. But while I was at work who cares for him? Who stops him wandering into the street? At what point was I expected to lock him up? Use restraints when he became frightening? At what point was anybody going to notice that it wasn’t just him that needed help; I did too. But that help wasn’t there, and it nearly killed me. Why would anyone care for a zombie, some reviewers have asked. It’s unrealistic. Well, is it really? Ask instead why would anyone would give up their life to care for someone they love.
Contaminated is beautifully written. I couldn’t fault a single word. Good chapter lengths, no melodrama, strong and engaging characters, and just enough to spike the adrenaline and keep the reader in a constant state of caution and consternation. No, it’s not action packed, but the story is first class. I read the whole book straight through, only breaking for tea and to re-fill my Scooby Doo hot water bottle. I loved every word and I hope there will be a sequel. Em Garner is an author I will be keeping a close eye on from now on.
I received an ebook copy from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This did not alter my opinion in any way.
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