No one is really sure how it started. Random attacks. Censored news reports. Curfews and evacuations. The internet stopping. And then there’s Rhea and Jojo’s mother going missing. Band members Dee, Poppy, Zufan, and Jack’s creative retreat cut short by power outages. And an unnamed teen facing down her own family, who are literally about to tear out her throat. Welcome to the post-apocalyptic Victoria of Alison Evans’ Highway Bodies.
The second novel from Evans, Highway Bodies, features a ferociously diverse cast of teenagers at its core, few of whom sit comfortably at the intersection of straight and cisgender. Some are accepted by their families, some are not. Some have found solace with like-minded people online, while others haven’t quite figured out what labels they’re going to use, if any. And just when things are starting to fall into place for some of them, along come the zombies.
Speaking frankly, there were some things I found uncomfortable or strange – at least to start with. Introducing characters and immediately following names with preferred pronouns, for example. Sexuality openly discussed. All these little things that, somehow, weirdly, ridiculously felt stranger to me than the fact that the whole thing was set during a violent and bloody zombie apocalypse. It’s an ignorance that was made doubly ridiculous by how excited I was when several of Evans’ characters talked about periods and the practicalities of that little monthly highlight during a zombie apocalypse. It seemed it was okay for someone else to be uncomfortable (as I’m sure many are when it comes to periods) but not me. Ugh, Jodie. No.
Catching yourself in that kind of a moment can have one of three outcomes. You can get angry and dismissive and any variation of -phobic. You can ignore it and pretend that you don’t see it. Or you can just run with it. For my part, I wholly recommend the third option. Embrace that uncomfortable-ness, break down your own hang-ups, and get to know these characters as they are. Because these kids know who they are, and that who that happens to be is up to them. It’s a lesson well learned, even if it’s accompanied by gratuitous zombie braining.
There’s much to be said for representation and giving young people across all spectrums access to media that lets them see themselves. There’s even more to be said for letting them see themselves as normal – not as tortured teens or social outcasts, or as the saviours of those with more archaic views, and Evans has done just that with Highway Bodies. That many of these kids have come from hostile backgrounds is apparent, but there’s new strengths to be discovered, new bonds to be formed. Hell, a new world to adjust to. Introductions are made, pronouns are nailed down, but then it’s time to get on with more important things – y’know, like staying alive.
With that in mind, Highway Bodies does function fantastically as a zombie survival novel. Evans embraces the genre with enthusiasm, with their cast encountering plenty of the old favourite tropes – there’s lots of abandoned highways, buildings you just know they shouldn’t go into, dodgy looking survivors, and First Kills to enjoy here!
The book does slip into repetitiveness here and there – new locations, new zombies, new nasty grown-ups – but that’s rather the nature of the apocalyptic beast. I’m honestly pretty sure that’s all The Walking Dead has being doing for years! But its fast pace and stellar action sequences more than make up for the familiar set-ups, and there’s a wonderful warmth to the interactions between the characters, as they shift from suspicious, to grudgingly respectful, to found family.
Highway Bodies warms hearts as often as it slits throats, telling a story driven by equal parts love, acceptance, and lots of zombies. Every inch the horror story, Alison Evans has injected new (after)life into the genre, with their diverse cast and wonderful writing. This is a unique slice of Australia YA, and it comes highly recommended.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Alison Evans’ Highway Bodies is available now, through Echo.