This is not a Test
Sloane Price was living in hell long before the rest of the world joined her there. Daughter of a domineering and abusive father and sister of a girl who abandoned her to his mercy, she’s been ready to die for a long time. When those around her fall foul of an infection that leaves them mindless and cannibalistic, she is so deeply depressed that her only thought is mild irritation that her suicide attempt has been interrupted. Forced onto the street in order to avoid being trapped with the father she fears she finds herself part of a small group of teenagers who find refuge in their now empty high school. As tensions ebb and flow, she remains in a daze, unable to embrace the need to survive that fuels her companions. As the days pass and their situation becomes more dire, Sloane waits and watches and wonders exactly when death will finally find them all.
Sloane, for all her detachment, is one of the most compelling protagonists of recent times. Everything is observed through her haze of depression and shellshock and this disconnect allows other characters to crystalise around her in a way that allows the reader to meet them almost through almost entirely objective eyes. Sloane finds herself to be at odds with the rest of the group as her own desire to die directly contradicts their desperate attempts to survive, yet she keeps this desire to herself, hoping to slip away from them at some point. While it is clear that she has been swept along by her companions by accident, it is never entirely explained why she has stayed with them for so long nor why she followed them to the school. Surely she could have disappeared at any point and they, with their own survival in mind, would have been unlikely to follow her. This, along with other equally contradictory actions on her part, riffs on the nature of the survival instinct and what it is to fight it. While Sloane is a constantly evolving character, particularly in regards to her relationships with others in her group, she at no point experiences a road-to-Damascus moment that engenders her with a great will to live and therein lies the ugly beauty of her broken character.
Other characters in This is Not a Test are beautifully imagined. Cary, sometime leader and definitive voice of survival is a believably strong yet damaged character, trying desperately not to flounder in guilt over recent events. Twins Trace and Grace (yes, really) are struggling with loss and dealing with it in entirely different ways. Grace is almost beatific in her fair-mindedness while Trace rages against his situation at any opportunity. Trace in particular is a character that develops and changes over the course of the book in a way that is both unpredictable and also entirely plausible. Youngest of the group,
Harrison spends much of his time snivelling in a corner, causing the others to feel a mix of guilt, panic, irritation and pity – again an authentic response given the situation. Then there is Rhys who is, well, a pretty nice guy. Attractive, smart, empathetic and patient he would appear to be the perfect person to lift Sloane’s death wish – yet he spends the majority of the book righteously furious at her, a reaction that is entirely believable.
In fact, believable is the word that springs to mind again and again when reading This Is Not A Test. For a zombie book (and this is a zombie book), it contains remarkably few zombie encounters, choosing instead to focus on the microcosm of fear, stress and depression that exists within the barricaded high school. Too often in this genre, characters find an inner strength that they did not know they possessed, a skill with weapons previously undiscovered and an ability to put aside the horror of what they have experienced in order to fight their way through the ravenous hordes to freedom. Stories that take that road are frequently fabulous, but none really examine how teenagers might really react should they find themselves abandoned to such a hellish reality. Courtney Summers cleverly takes a huge situation and focuses on one trapped group. Surely, in reality, there would be someone who couldn’t stop crying, someone angry, someone conflicted and yes, someone massively depressed. By looking at this, Summers has created a story that contains zombies but is, in actuality, almost existential and that asks (albeit quietly) why anyone would want to live in a world so completely filled with horror.
This is the first Courtney Summers book that I have personally read but it won’t be the last. The ending of This Is Not a Test is hauntingly ambiguous and disturbingly beautiful and it is the first book in a long time that I have finished and instantly wanted to start again. For fans of the zombie genre, this is a new take on an old story, for fans of contemporary fiction this is a fascinating view of well worn contemporary tropes set in an entirely new setting and for fans of quietly compelling writing this is a one hundred percent must read. Of all the books that I have read in 2012 thus far, this is the one that comes with the highest recommendation.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. This Is Not a Test is available in all good bookstores now. Splendibird cannot stress enough how much you should all READ IT.