EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, before the crowds gathered at a bookstore to hear Linda Wanatabe McFerrin talking about her new book Dead Love, we were gabbing privately for an hour at a local bar.
She told us the next day she’d be off to Visalia in central California for an actual zombie walk. (Imagine you’re at a remote shopping mall, and a throng of zombies suddenly materializes…) Eventually you’d realize it’s a bunch of zombie enthusiasts collectively celebrating their passion in costume. But for the wild participants, it’s a cathartic mass ritual!
I’d worried she’d be one of those book authors who holds a secret grudge against the Kindle. But she seemed more committed to her love of fiction, and said agreeably that “Some people read books, some people like ebooks.” And she’d already tantalized us with the premise of her horrific new novel. I asked my girlfriend to review Linda’s new book — “a novel about Japan…and zombies.”
My friend first told me I’d love Dead Love by Linda Watanabe McFerrin. The press release says: “Dead Love is a diabolical joyride with a cast of supernatural characters…”
“Read it,” said my friend. “It’s a delightful romp.” Really? A delightful romp about zombies? There’s two things I never thought I’d see in the same sentence…
But it turns out that talking about Dead Love results in an overflow of oxymorons. It’s about a glib ghoul and a zippy zombie, plus a glacial gangster. I’ve never thought of Zombies as zippy before, but this is a zombie that retains her own will and ends up performing in a trapeze act. You’ve gotta agree — that’s pretty zippy!
Wait, a zombie in a trapeze act? Doesn’t that fall under “completely ridiculous plot twists”? You’d think so, but one of the wonderful things about this book is it has an internal logic. The story goes crazy places and it does crazy things, but everything still makes sense. Each step follows logically from the step before, drawing readers into the world of a love-sick ghoul chasing a newly-made half-zombie around the globe.
The book follows Erin Orison, the motherless, cast-off daughter of a powerful Japanese man. He summons her to Tokyo, where she’s met by a bodyguard and her father’s lawyer. She’s been drawn to Japan as a pawn in a huge game of political intrigue. It turns out that the ghoul Clement is part of the Political Intrigue, but only to the extent that he uses it to ensnare Erin, who he’s been in love with since he saw her as a child.
He decides to use this opportunity to make her a zombie, therefore binding her to him forever. But he screws up the zombie formula, leaving Erin with her own will. Big oops. (This is a very threadbare plot rendition, so as not to give away too much…)
The ghoul Clement reminds me of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. He’s cheerful, optimistic, and smelly, all love and boundless energy, glibly bouncing towards Erin (his love) who loathes him, shrinks from him when he shows up, and runs every chance she gets! Clement is aware this doesn’t exactly follow the ghoul guidelines, but he still bumbles on, happily pursuing his zombie love. He follows Erin across continents, shielding her from her father’s plan to kill her, and waiting for her to change her mind and love him back.
But this is much more than a fun story. McFerrin is an award-winning author who’s written everything from erotica and poetry to a teen novel and now this thriller about zombies. She’s a writer. Not a story teller, but someone who crafts words and bends language to their own use. She breathes life into the characters, the story, and the absurdity, making it all realistic and believable.
And you follow her because it’s wonderful and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Her descriptions are pure delight. “…I made it a point to pause, with a model’s instinct for angles and light, in a brief but expressive pose. I’ve always been bold. The cruel crowd of my school days had little tolerance for the shy or withdrawn.” That last sentence is like a punch, emotionally explaining a lot of her abandoned teenage years, and setting up her personality.
I love most when she talks about Ryu, the Japanese Yakusa gangster. Ryu almost never speaks out loud, but we hear his internal dialogue and how others react to him. And he is an especially strong character. Ryu “had in fact two favorite modes of facial expressions — this, his comic face or the down-turned tragic version where his mouth formed the shape of a horseshoe, upside down, with all the luck running out.” This sent real chills up my spine and captures his quiet menace in one sentence.
I used the Kindle’s bookmark feature to store many favorite examples of fine writing (the description of Amsterdam is a masterpiece), but I’ll move on to the surprising laughs that pop up throughout the book. I never expected to laugh out loud while reading a zombie thriller, but McFerrin creates scenes that are absurd theater. Erin wakes up after being dead for three days in a new partial-zombie status, and the scene, though horrific, is also touching and then laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve not been so appalled at laughing since the scene in Fargo where the kidnapped wife cuts a crazy path out of the bedroom and down the stairs wrapped in clear plastic. McFerrin’s vivid visuals create these unexpectedly funny images.
I loved Dead Love. The beautiful writing, the unexpected laughs, the unexpected plot, and the unusual characters. Fast-paced and surprisingly touching, the novel never disappointed me…
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And yes, there is a zombie sex scene (which Linda read to us at the book-signing).