I’ve said it before, and obviously, I’m about to say it again – I do not like zombie stories. Every so often, I have to swallow my pride and admit that I’ve found one I like. It happened with The Forest of Hands and Teeth. And then again with World War Z (the book – Not the movie). And again with The Girl with All the Gifts. And now, it’s happened again – this time with This is Not A Test. What all these books have in common is that they’re not really zombie novels. They’re character studies that happen to contain zombies. TINAT is the most non-zombie, and the one I like the best, in the aforementioned novels. There are zombies in like 20% of the story and even then, they’re mostly background noise. Literally, sometimes, all that’s there is their ragged breathing. What this is, is a story about destruction. The slow, systematic removal of a person’s strength and self. The inability to feel safe in the one place a child should feel the safest. If you’re planning to read this novel, just stop here and go do it. I’m going to talk about the content, there’s no way to talk about anything in, or before, this novel without giving away the stuff that makes it good.
Sloane and her older sister, Lily, have been under their father’s control for years. Not the way most children are. Not in a strict parent kind of way. But an unbelievable abusive father. Who inspected their bodies to make sure their bruises didn’t show. Wearing his daughter’s down slowly and brutally. But they had a plan. A plan to get away as soon as they were old enough. Both old enough that their father couldn’t do anything about it. That plan, the prospect of getting away, was the only thing keeping Sloane sane. They just had to wait until Sloane turned eighteen. And then Lily left her. Ran away. Put the plan into motion – early and alone. Leaving her younger sister behind. And Sloane took the brunt of all of their father’s anger. He lost control until he beat her so badly she couldn’t go to school. Sloane is destroyed by Lily’s betrayal. Even more than she is by the physical abuse. All of this happens before the novel even starts. It’s all the background noise to Sloane’s life. The things that have brought her to the side of the tub, contemplating suicide, where she sits when the novel starts. We get no slow build here. Summers just throws us right into the centre of Sloane’s misery.
So, how does a girl bent on her own death become the central character of a story where she could die with ease. Walk out into a zombie infested street and blam – no story. There’s no easier story to die in than a zombie novel. All she needs to do is not try. But she runs into a group of survivors who take her in. They get together to get to safety and end up securing themselves within the high school. They’re safe there. Six high school students. Two girls. Four boys. All desperate to survive except for one. So anxious for her death she carries around her suicide note with her. A note to her sister. An accusation of sorts. This is a girl so destroyed by her life, that the zombie apocalypse is the best thing that could have happened to her.
So, why doesn’t she just kill herself? It would be crazy easy. But she doesn’t, she’s one of the few survivors at the end of the book. Personally, I think it’s instinct. That buried under all that darkness, Sloane’s still got a survival instinct. It’s the only thing that got her through life with her father. She credits her sister, but Lily left her. Was Lily weak? I don’t want to say that. She left an abusive situation. She left in the only way that she knew she could. The only way she could survive. That’s strength. But she left her little sister alone in that house, and maybe that’s weak. Maybe it’s not. Maybe she always planned to come back. Who knows. That isn’t part of the story. But Sloane is anything but weak. There’s this idea that stories about abuse are only worthy if the abusee stands up to their abuser. If they explode with anger. But that isn’t true. There are other types of abuse stories that are just a s worthy of reading. Yes, I want to see those power stories. I want that to happen more often in real life. Want those people who suffer in silence to find their voice. But that’s often not the case, especially with those people who have been victims of ritualized violence their entire lives. They live in their silence.
Sloane’s personal strength is the only thing that’s kept her going – but she doesn’t recognize it. When Grace says she wishes she was as strong as Sloane, Sloane doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s always wanted to be more like Grace. Idealized Grace and her family. This is one of the underlying ideas in the novel. Wanting to be something we think we’re not. Admiring the things in others that we want to see in ourselves, but not realizing we already have those qualities. Or anger at those who demonstrate our qualities we hate. The boys in the story more clearly represent this side of the equation. Stuck in this potentially dead end situation, the male characters do nothing but bicker and fight – especially Trace and Cary. They squabble about everything from where they sleep to who eats when to who gets to hold the gun. There are reasons, but it gets so petty and constant that it becomes almost annoying. But it serves a purpose. The slow personality traits that are revealed in the lengths of boredom. Cause no matter what the zombies are doing on the outside, when the kids are in the school, with hours and hours of time and no interruptions, the time becomes tedious. It reveals things in each of them. It shows how emotional and intense the other people within the novel feel. How extreme their reactions are in comparison to Sloane’s. She’s been conditioned to never show her feelings and to just do as she’s told.
She slowly begins to adapt over the course of the novel, but her instinct to remain hidden is extremely strong. Even after it’s just the six of them, when Sloane knows her father isn’t with them, she won’t tell them about her life. She’s so ashamed. And so fearful. Eventually, she tells Rhys, and that helps her start to break her shell, but her instinct is always to go back to her old self. She even admits it after Trace attacks her. She knows she’s grown but when confronted with an abusive male figure, she succumbs to the role of victim again. She just reverts back to the girl she was before everything changed. To the girl her father made her.
Sloane has many opportunities to die throughout the book. She could have been the first into the swarmed alley when they were getting to the school. She has access to a nurse’s office and a building full of sharp objects. She volunteers to go out into the hoard to investigate a man outside – the one time she intentionally did something where she intended the outcome to be death. She may have actually died in this moment if Rhys hasn’t insisted on going with her. She claims her survival was to save him, but her instinct told her to fight. Something inside her told her not to go with her base desire. Her instincts told her not to give in. Just like she didn’t take every opportunity to do it while she was at home alone. Sloane is driven by her need to see her sister. To know that Lily didn’t just leave her. That there were reasons. Her eventual reunion with Lily is not what she wanted, but is probably the best thing for her. When she finds Lily and her father, they’ve both been turned and Sloane has to make one final decision – allow her sister to bite her so they can be together again and not have to worry about their father or kill her sister, release her anger, and survive. This is her deciding moment.
Here’s what I loved about this novel – Sloane is an unexpected heroine. She’s not overtly strong. She’s not outwardly likeable. She’s not any of the things typically looked for in a heroine. No one wants to dress up like her for Halloween. She isn’t the girl who stands out. She doesn’t have a ‘persona’. She doesn’t go out of her way to be a hero. But Sloane’s got her own something that makes her special. It’s hard to explain. I keep trying and can’t quite get it. I just know I like her. Whatever it is, there’s something appealing about this girl. This is Not A Test is a fantastic novel and I’m excited that I’ve discovered Courtney Summers.