Cards on the table: Breathers is the first zombie book I can remember reading. So, sadly – and maybe irritatingly – I’m in no position to tell you how it compares with other books in the genre; but, on the other hand, I can give you a novice’s account of my dabble in the waters of undead fiction, and I can definitely assure you that I’ll be going in for a second dip in the near future. Any of you zombie-sceptics out there: if you’re looking for a place to start, this is a winner.
Breathers isn’t a gore-fest (though there are some pretty horrible details about putrification and decay and embalming that give it a nice well-researched edge) – it’s more of a zombie romantic-comedy-slash-equal-rights-manifesto, and a very funny one at that. Plus, it’s narrated by an actual zombie. Andy Warner has recently died in the car-crash that also killed his wife; unlike Rachel, though, Andy didn’t stay dead for very long. Like hundreds of other people every year, he spontaneously reanimated days after he was pronounced deceased, much to the annoyance of the authorities. His parents, pretty disgusted by this unsanitary turn of events, take him back in and let him live in their Californian basement, though his dad would be much happier of he could only ship his biologically-deviant kid off to a research facility or a zombie zoo, and his mum screams if she ever accidentally touches him. Andy starts seeing a therapist, joins a zombie support-group (Undead Anonymous), and begins to assess the bottom-tier position that zombies occupy in society – and he’s not happy with it. He can’t work, vote, get a social security card, go out unchaperoned, or break curfew. Life – undeath – is unasked-for, unfair and increasingly getting worse, as the Breathers (non-zombies), especially the frat-boy variety, make his semi-life harder and harder to bear by taunting, imprisoning and attacking him and his new zombie pals. So it’s not long before Andy strikes back at the bigoted, intolerant Breather community; rather awkwardly, though, the two he kills are his own parents. Well, what else is an unwanted, reanimated, widowed son to do, when they’re going to hand him over to the state for experimentation? I won’t ruin any more of the plot (and don’t worry, the murder’s revealed very early on) – but there’s lots to keep you entertained: think zombie secrets and uprisings, barbecues, a media feeding-frenzy, and, of course, a post-death love affair, as Andy finds himself gradually falling for Rita, a fellow zombie and one-time suicide victim with a penchant for eating lipstick (Hey, you’ve got to get your formaldehyde from somewhere if you don’t want to totally fall apart).
Structure-wise, Browne’s come from a screen-writing background, and it shows: the short chapters with their clear narrative arcs, climaxes and neat action set-pieces (cue dismemberment, arson attacks, car-crashes) are really filmic. There’s plenty of changes in pace, with the romantic plot and lots of deadpan social observation and commentary balancing the parent-killing, zombie civil-rights fights and the flashbacks to Andy’s and the others’ initial deaths, so it’s not an all-out action extravaganza; but it is consistently entertaining: I’d be surprised if somebody hasn’t already optioned it for a movie adaptation. It’s a page-turning read, and I think it’d easily give Sean of the Dead or Zombieland a good run for their money on the big screen.
Any Cop?: I really enjoyed it, though, of course zombie fiction, led by Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, seems to have quickly flooded the mainstream market in the last year or so, and I don’t know what the hard-core zombie-lit fans would make of this book in particular. (I’d love to hear, if you any of you are reading and would care to comment below.) But I thought it was a really zippy, intelligent and funny read; not high-brow, not very stylish, but still well-written and interesting with a good plot and strong characters that weren’t subservient to the blood-and-guts details of the zombie lifestyle. The zombies-as-repressed-social-group idea probably isn’t unique to Browne but it’s well handled and his attention to detail – the mechanics of living in suburbia while you try not to get captured by SPCA officials – is fantastic. And it’s genuinely funny and poignant, and I really rooted for Andy the whole way through. So unless you’re massively squeamish, I’d recommend it – it won’t change your world, but you will be entertained; and, like me, you might find yourself itching to check out another undead tome before too long.