This is a book that straightforwardly declares its content from the presentation of both cover and title. With the bloodied portrait and the “and zombies” appendage, what you get here is precisely what appearances promise: no more and no less. This is Jane Austen’s manuscript, almost in its entirety, with sporadic scenes of zombies inserted.
The result is an amusing gimmick, but nothing that is astoundingly witty or which sheds new light on familiar characters or situations as most parodies are wont to do. In fact, Grahame-Smith’s effort is probably best used as a way of getting reluctant readers interested in the classics, considering it breaks up all the “talky stuff” with scenes of violence and gore. I suppose it’s like a literary, bloodthirsty version of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down.” I bought a copy for a friend who was left completely baffled by the BBC mini-series in the hopes that this will pave the way for more enlightened conversation…
Elizabeth Bennett is the second of five daughters, facing an uncertain future. With a slightly impoverished estate, a feeble-minded mother, and hoards of zombies that regularly attack the living, Elizabeth cares little for marriage and instead hones her skills as a warrior. For the last fifty-five years a mysterious plague has caused the dead to rise and reign havoc upon the living, leading to many young ladies studying the art of warfare, and the defence of her country is something that Elizabeth takes very seriously.
Little changes when she meets Mr Darcy, the son of a renowned zombie-slayer, with whom she gets off on the wrong foot. After he slights her honour, Lizzie refrains from beheading him, but is determined to dislike him forevermore — a vow that she finds herself recanting after she discovers that her prejudice against him is unfounded.
There were a couple of ways in which this particular story could have been told. Accurately portrayed characters could have been thrown into a brand new plot which involves zombies, or Austen’s plot could have been left more or less intact, with slightly askewer characters dealing with the undead. Seth Grahame-Smith chooses the latter course, resulting in a story that remains so close to its source, that one could actually get away with reading just this adaptation and understanding the gist of Austen’s original work.
Of course there are differences, some more effective than others. For instance, I loved the slightly altered wording of Austen’s most famous witticisms, such as Mr Bennett informing his wife (rather than the hope he will outlive her and therefore alleviate her worry about loosing Longbourne to Mr Collins):
“Let us flatter ourselves that Mr Collins, who seems always eager to talk of Heaven, may be dispatched there by a hoard of zombies before I am dead.”
On the other hand, other jokes don’t work as well, namely the girls’ martial arts training. Apparently all of the Bennett girls have undergone rigorous training in the Orient, which makes little sense even in this context (since upper-class women of the time were actually permitted to use firearms as a recreational sport, the physical fighting seems unnecessary, and the ninja-antics can get a little silly at times… Not funny, just silly).
Likewise, though I had no problems with Lizzie shooting legions of the undead in the most lady-like way possible, I couldn’t quite get my head around the scene in which she fights and kills Catherine de Bough’s ninjas. Elizabeth Bennett, killing actual human beings in a training session and then eating their hearts? Er, no. She also advises Jane to cut Miss Bingley’s throat and fantasizes about beheading Lydia, whereas Darcy drops several innuendoes regarding the “balls” that everyone is so interested in.
Basically, the plot is the same, but the characters are fundamentally different, and I can’t help but feel that perhaps this parody would have been more effective had these two aspects of the retelling been switched around. As a parody of Austen’s work, this does little to explore characters or themes in new light that a zombie-infected countryside might afford them, and instead most of the humour is derived from the droll, matter-of-fact way in which the population of England deals with those that they politely refer to as “unmentionables” or “dreadfuls.” Yet after a while, this works to the detriment of the book, for as the story goes on, the zombies become so blasé that I sometimes forgot I was actually reading an alternative version of Austen’s work.
In the genre of comedic fiction, it is certainly original, but not particularly memorable. In fact, once the initial premise wore off, I found myself wondering why I wasn’t just reading Austen herself considering this provides a few laughs, but no real insights; it’s just Pride and Prejudice…with zombies… But that being said, I can’t wait until this is a movie…