August 03, 2012

This is Not a Test

by Courtney Summers
St. Martin's Griffin
326 pp.
Ages 13+

Crushed by her father’s relentless physical abuse and by the unexpected departure of her older sister Lily who had promised never to leave her, seventeen-year-old Sloane Price is already questioning the value of life, when the dead become undead and rampage their small community of Cortege.  Still referring to the suicide note she had prepared for her sister, Sloane nonetheless follows the directives of the announcement that purports that, “This is not a test,” while encouraging everyone to find shelter and avoid detection.  Sloane becomes part of a small group of teens who find refuge in the town’s high school.  The six students are a motley band of Cary Chen, twins Grace and Trace Casper, senior Rhys Moreno and freshman Harrison.  The group had included Grace and Trace’s parents until they were swarmed by the undead on the way to the high school, a loss for which Trace continues to blame Cary.

While the six barricade all the school doors against the thundering zombies (a word that Courtney Summers uses sparingly, perhaps only once or twice in the book), the group dynamics begin to evolve as the six individuals interact with one another.  Harrison, the youngest at fifteen and new to Cortege, spends a lot of time whimpering and flailing with his fear.   Grace is the most compassionate, often offering comfort, to Harrison, her brother, everyone.  This is especially helpful with Trace whose antagonism towards Cary, who seems to naturally take on a leadership stance, becomes angrier and disdainful with every suggestion Cary makes.  Thankfully, the sibling affection between Trace and Grace keeps Trace in check most of the time.  Sloane had seen this endearing familial bond once when she was younger and, without her father’s permission, had a sleepover at Grace’s.  She still held the memory of the love she felt there, well worth her father’s subsequent wrath.

Rhys, who Sloane remembers as one of the senior smokers that hung around outside school in the morning, shows a surprising depth of understanding for their situation and for Sloane, having taken note of her, before and now, recognizing her intensity and pensive nature.  But it is Sloane who is perhaps the most confusing to the others as well as herself, thinking that, “…it isn’t enough to survive for the sake of surviving.” (pg. 60)

Sloane’s death wish becomes evident to Rhys after he and Sloane leave the safety of the school to investigate a man outside who Trace is convinced is his father and they have to defend themselves against an attack from the undead, making some hard life and death choices.

With the added stress of discovering another person in their midst and thus an unknown and unsecured access to the school, the six teens find themselves changing loyalties and rationalizing their feelings and subsequent decisions, good and bad, in favour of life and survival or otherwise.

While many readers will call This is Not a Test a zombie novel, just as other books are called vampire novels, the undead only provide the premise by which Sloane and the others come together and focus their energies for survival, or so it would seem.  The zombies may be the walking dead but Sloane acknowledges that she is the walking wounded, having “been variations of hurt all my life.” (pg. 107)  How the group changes and adapts to new information and the consequences of their decisions (albeit in the context of zombie attacks) makes This is Not a Test more a psychological thriller, pitting psyches and personalities against each other, with both the characters and the readers wondering what the true reality is. 

Having never read any of Courtney Summers earlier books (Cracked Up To Be, 2009; Some Girls Are, 2010; Fall for Anything, 2010; all from St. Martin’s Griffin), I was not prepared for the strength of her writing.  Courtney Summers is a strong proponent of “showing, not telling” in her craft.  There are no long descriptive passages at the onset to introduce the story elements; the first vivid description of the walking dead that I noticed was on page 294 (28 pages before the book’s ending).  Courtney Summers' writing is rich without condescending to readers, who are treated like thinking participants, invited to read between the lines to understand the direction of the plot and the motivations of its characters.   Even the ending will leave the reader contemplating the meaning of a single exchange with a young undead girl, so in keeping with the rest of the book.  For This is Not a Test, a story about uncertain and unfamiliar circumstances, Courtney Summers’ writing provides the perfect conduit for sustaining the evocative but intricate nature of the story.

Courtney Summers' website is rich in tidbits, including news that Sony has optioned this novel for a TV movie.  It's worth a visit.

1 comment: