What does the United States look like 25 years after zombies have led the nation into an apocalypse? What is life like for a teenager born ten years or so after the apocalypse? What has she seen, and done, and what is the state of her soul? These are the questions first-time novelist Alden Bell attempts to answer in The Reapers Are the Angels, a soul-searing novel that looks at some of life’s hardest questions through the lens of violence so common and natural it isn’t even evil.
Temple is fifteen year old, and she knows that there is a God, and a slick one at that. She knows because of all the miracles that can still be seen in the world, like tropical fish dancing around her feet, “All darting around like marbles in a chalk circle, and they were lit up electric, mostly silver but some gold and pick too. They came and danced around her ankles, and she could feel their little electric fish bodies, and it was like she was standing under the moon and in the moon at the same time.” A little miracle, but enough of one that Temple is cheered. This is some mighty fine writing: Bell has sketched Temple’s character for us in just a few lines. He tells us about the world next, a world that “has gone to black damnation,” and the quickly, we know we’re in a post-apocalyptic America, one where “meatskins” keep coming at the living until their brains are put out of commission.
At the beginning of The Reapers Are the Angels, Temple is living in a lighthouse on an island off the coast of Florida, eating fish she catches herself and pignuts she finds in the underbrush. She’s living in a kind of paradise, with no clear threat, but also no company. As the season starts to change, though, the shoal between the island and the mainland is getting bigger, and one day a zombie shows up — in bad enough condition that Temple easily dispatches him, but as a clear sign to her that it’s time to move along. And so begins Temple’s adventure in what used to be the southern United States.
Surprisingly, much still works in the world that is left over after the zombies have ravaged it. Operable cars can still be found, and gas stations still yield gas; cities still have lights and water, apparently without anyone attending the utilities. It’s a bit of fantasy that lets this book work, though this underlying irrationality niggles at the mind. It means that Temple can move from oasis to oasis, finding the communities that have formed for mutual protection all over the country. Each oasis has its own dangers, though, for the living have always been nearly as dangerous as the dead of this world. Temple is able to meet the dangers from both the living and the dead, with a violence that seems foreign to the girl we meet by eavesdropping on her thoughts — a violence we cheer, because we like Temple and she won’t survive without that very competent way she has with a gurkha knife.
Before long, Temple is fleeing from Moses, a living man with a grudge, accompanied by Maury, a mentally deficient man who seems much like a living zombie, unable to speak, apparently with little mental capacity, but a peaceful man. Temple wants to stay alive and find Maury’s relatives to hand him off and be on her way to Niagara Falls, which she’s heard about from an older man who once saw the Falls and tells her about how miraculous they are. Finding miracles seems to be Temple’s calling, and she finds them everywhere, even as she is attacked again and again. She never holds it against those who attack her; it is simply the way of the world.
This is one of the oddest and best zombie novels you will ever read. The focus isn’t on the zombies at all, but on surviving in a world where zombies have come to exist. (Their genesis is never explained.) In fact, it’s about more than surviving; it’s about truly living in this world, seeing its beauties wherever they might be. In some very strange ways, this book is almost a prayer of thanks for all that remains when the worst has happened. You’ll think that that is a strange reaction to this book when you start reading it, but as the pages fly by, and when you reach the end, you’ll realize that a blue sky looks more beautiful than before; and you’ll think about how wonderful it is that you can read, that you can sit peacefully by a still lake, that the Grand Canyon exists, and you will realize that Alden Bell has touched your deep heart’s core.