Ryan, Carrie. The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Delacorte, 2009.
Generations after an extra-nasty virus has caused all infected people to die and then “return” as zombies hungry for human flesh, a small village maintains constant vigilance against the Unconsecrated who swarm the forest all around and press against the walls, moaning to get in and devour its inhabitants. As far as the villagers know, they are the only humans left in the world – but Mary discovers not only that there must be others living somewhere beyond the village walls, but that the Sisterhood, the powerful religious order in the village, is keeping plenty of secrets.
Mary, whose mother and father have both been infected (by the bite of an Unconsecrated, the only way to acquire the virus) and are haunting the forest as zombies, is kicked out of her house by her older brother and must become a reluctant initiate of the Sisterhood. Fairly soon after she discovers that the Sisterhood has hidden an outsider, a young woman named Gabrielle, and has caused her for some unknown reason to become Unconsecrated, the zombies break through the village’s defenses and overrun the town. Mary manages, along with several other young adults, a small boy, and a dog, to escape down a fenced-in road that has been secretly maintained as an escape route by the Sisterhood.
This book has several elements that are familiar in dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction – the primitive life-style, the ignorance of the world beyond the small confines of the community, the loss of knowledge of the world before disaster hit, and above all the Secrets kept by a very powerful few. This formula is freshened and invigorated by the addition of the Unconsecrated. Not only does the constant danger of being torn apart (or at the very least infected) add a decided frisson of terror and suspense to all proceedings, but the zombies are described in delicious detail. As they singlemindedly scrabble after human flesh, their own dead flesh falls off their bodies, their bones break and protrude through torn skin, and they basically disintegrate – it’s all very gruesome and fascinating. Mary even feels a sort of affection, or at least kinship, with the Unconsecrated thing that Gabrielle becomes – her relentless desire and energy feel very familiar to Mary.
The situation is nightmarish – the whole world is apparently overrun with zombies, with more being created every time a person becomes infected and is not immediately killed. Tiny pockets of humans remain, scratching out a bare and extremely fragile existence. Luckily, zombies aren’t smart or cunning, which would seem to be humanity’s only hope. Set against this background, Mary’s agonizing about her love life and her future feel a bit trivial – but oh, so very human and essential. There are plenty of unanswered questions – we never do find out some essential secrets of the Sisterhood, for example, or why it’s only a bite and not a scratch that infects someone – but it’s intriguing to wonder about how the Return came about and how it could be overcome. This is an example of many ordinary elements coming together to create a gripping story of survivial.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.