Book Review: This Is Not a Test, Courtney Summers

This is not your typical zombie novel.

After having scads of people including Malinda Lo recommend This Is Not a Test to me, and letting it sit on my to-order pile for a while, I finally got with it and actually ordered it, and now I am mad at myself for having waited this long. So if you haven’t heard of it yet, do yourself a favour, stop reading, go out, and order it. I’ll wait, and when you come back, we can resume talking about this book. If you have, and you’re dilly-dallying on ordering or feeling wishy-washy about whether you should order it, stop that. Go order it. If you have a copy sitting in your home waiting to be read, put it on the top of your to-read pile. Position it on top of the takeout menus. Whatever it will take.

Because here’s the thing: There have been a lot of zombie books in the last few years, and while some of them have been outstanding, many, many more of them have been, while, not very creative, definitely not innovative, and honestly kind of dull. You get to the point where you think that the zombie thing is kind of overdone. So when you hear that a book is about zombies, it’s kind of a turnoff — even if you love zombie mythology and horror, and even if you love playing with the idea of zombies.

Here’s why you should read This Is Not a Test: Because it completely subverts zombie tropes, and because it’s actually much more of a character study of Sloane Price than it is about zombies. It’s a book about a young woman who has had a pretty shitty life, as you will learn in bits and pieces, and what happens when her life collides with the zombie apocalypse — and how her life haunts her every day.

This Is Not a Test opens with a scene that seems like it’s been ripped right out of a contemporary novel. Sloane Price, teenager, is preparing to commit suicide. She’s written her note, she’s saying farewell to the world, and she’s ready to go. She feels abandoned by her sister, who fled the house once she hit the age of majority after promising to wait for her, and she can’t bear her unsustainable life any more. Her father is abusive, and abusive in the sneakiest and most grinding of ways: He hits her where it can’t be seen, he verbally abuses her, he tries to keep her small and quiet and invisible. And Sloane, like many teens, feels hopeless. She sees suicide as the only way out, believing that no one around her can offer the resources she needs to get away from him.

Until there’s a noise from downstairs, and everything changes. Suddenly, Sloane is launched into a frenetic escape from an army of zombies roaming through her town, after watching her father go down at the hands of a vicious specimen who tears chunks from his body in a gory scene. The story, told in a stuttering narrative, finally has her landing at the local high school, which she blockades along with five other students as they try to take stock, and survive.

But Sloane has a secret: She’s been drawn into the drama of survival, yet, she has no intent of surviving. She still wants to die, she lives in constant fear that her father isn’t really dead, and she’s merely biding her time until she can complete her failed suicide attempt. Thus, This Is Not a Test becomes not so much about the zombies clattering at the doors of the school, desperate to get at the food inside, but about Sloane’s internal journey and how she deals with herself, and the complex feelings she’s addressing.

For readers who haven’t experienced abuse, it might be hard to understand how and why kids stay in abusive households, fear reporting abuse, and still feel intimidated even after being removed from abusive situations (granted, removal doesn’t usually take place at the teeth of a zombie). But for Sloane and kids in real-world abusive situations, the ever-present threat doesn’t magically go away when your external situation changes, because you’re still dealing with what’s happening inside. Even in a supportive, friendly, loving environment, you have to process incredibly complicated emotions that don’t simply resolve — and when you have been driven to the point of feeling suicidal, you don’t snap back from it.

Sloane has to process the trauma from her abusive father at the same time she, like the teens around her, is also trying to cope with the trauma of being caught in the zombie apocalypse. This is a psychological study about the effects of trauma and what it’s like to create thin webs of survival in a group stressed by tension and an awareness that allegiances are constantly shifting and moving. It’s also, ultimately, a book about how Sloane deals with her emotions — and it’s not presented in an overcoming adversity or ‘getting over it’ kind of way, which makes it incredibly refreshing.

It’s extremely difficult to cope with suicidal ideation even when you have support from peers, therapists, and your family. Now imagine doing it in the midst of the apocalypse, with a random group of people you don’t trust, in a town that’s been completely destroyed: That’s what This Is Not a Test is about.