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The Enemy - Charlie Higson

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Genre: Junior Books / Author: Charlie Higson / Edition: Unabridged / Audio CD / 3 Pages / Book is published 2009-10-01 by Puffin

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      30.07.2010 18:36
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      'Lord of the Flies' meets '28 days later'.

      == The premise ==

      'The Enemy' presents itself as a thoroughly chilling story of zombie devastation. The cover of the hardback edition is adorned with grotesque blue skulls which seem to leer at you. The tagline is brutal: They'll Chase You. They'll Rip You Open. They'll Feed On You. It is marketed like a horror film (you can watch a rather creepy advertisement from Puffin on YouTube) and labelled with a WARNING - contains strong language and scenes of violence - so it might come as a slight surprise to realise that this book is aimed at young teenagers. Charlie Higson, a popular author for the teen market, decided to create a tale that updated fairytales which pitch adults against children by making the adults diseased...and hungry. After all, if Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' can incorporate a bit of zombie mayhem nowadays, surely a teen read can? I was intrigued by the premise but generally concerned about the likely level of violence and gore in a work of teen fiction. Could Higson create a compelling story without making me nauseous? Could he create a story that I would feel comfortable recommending to young readers?

      == The story and the style ==

      Before the book opens, a mysterious disease has raced through the world, infecting everyone over the age of 14. The lucky ones died. The others lurk in London, where the story is set, hunting in disorganised packs and occasionally setting traps for the surviving children. This is a familiar plot device - mysterious illness takes hold so quickly and violently that society disappears and the few survivors struggle against the superhuman strength of the remaining infected. In fact, it is so familiar that it takes very little setting up; the difference is really in the way the story is told.

      In the first few pages, a child is captured and taken away by a group of grown ups who are described, shockingly, as 'mothers' and 'fathers'. Describing the grown-ups in this way while they hunt a small child (literally - he is called 'Small Sam') really emphasises that families have been destroyed and the very fabric of society unravelled. The factual way the tale is told helps to at once underplay and underline the horror of the moment: 'It was probably because of his size that the grown-ups went for him.' Description of the characters is minimal but helps you to imagine them easily. Their actions are clearly outlined and you are able to visualise the action easily. I was able to follow the storyline easily and found the brevity of description made the writing more engaging.

      So, when adults are trying to eat you, where do you hide? Why, Waitrose, of course. (In fact, Waitrose are featuring rather a lot in tales of a dark kind over the past few years - they are the site of a battle in 'Hot Fuzz', for example, a story with some very freaky villagers. Is someone trying to tell us something?) While the abduction of Small Sam is happening, a group of scavengers from the Holloway Waitrose are trying to find dinner for the twenty odd kids holed up in the supermarket. Dead dog appears to be on the menu, but it isn't long before the children are the target of some starving adults and are battling for their lives. The brutal chaos that the children have to live through is evident here and sympathy for their predicament is developed alongside respect for their bravery - or mock bravery! They are typical children, but they are forced to make horrendous choices and the stress they endure is clear. It is easy to care about these characters which helped me to engage with the rest of the story. I felt that their behaviour was realistic and convincingly "teenesque". The modern slang sprinkled throughout helps to achieve this and should give the book a cultural resonance for younger readers.

      For a range of reasons, the Waitrose crew are already considering the possibility of trying to find a new home when a rather odd boy appears and tells them of a wondrous place of safety: Buckingham Palace. Is he telling the truth? Surely there's a catch? And even if he is, can the Waitrose kids make it across London to the apparent safety of the Palace? Again, this is typical zombie/horror story fare: there has to be a dangerous journey through zombie heartland where there can be some brave fighting, frightening faces and sad losses of life. If you want something completely new and different, this story isn't it.

      However, once again, Higson handles the material well. The twists and turns of the story may be somewhat predictable to older readers, but the story itself is an exciting read. The tension is kept high throughout and the key questions - will they escape? If so, how? - are gripping. It helps that the characters are convincing and generally likeable. Their vulnerability shines through their bravado and means that some of the characters make good role models for teens - even when indulging in a spot of 'street art' (translation for non-youths: graffiti).

      == The Enemy... ==

      are suitably scary without being grotesque or vomit inducing. Strictly speaking, the adults are not zombies as they are infected rather than dead (think '28 days later') and can still die (if they live long enough they burst in a rather spectacular manner). They are frightening in their crazy looks and shuffling manner and, although it is easy to outrun them, they have a disturbing tendency to group together and block off any escape routes, which means that they are dangerous. (There are scenes that reminded me of the 'BFG' film where their sheer number make a lone child appear to be in a nightmare of epic proportions). They are allowed a certain humanity at times which allowed me to realise the true horror of the situation; the enemy is the disease rather than the adults, although the kids have yet to realise this.

      Higson emphasises their lack of real organisation but this changes as the book develops and there is a real sense of menace that I would expect to be developed in the second book. Clearly, they can be more dangerous than they are currently - and currently they are definitely dangerous! I felt that this was one of the most compelling threads of the story. I wondered how far the adults could organise and develop strategies, even leadership, while in the grip of the disease. This question is left unanswered for the sequel to develop, but there is enough in this book to create curiosity.

      Interestingly, Higson introduces another enemy that might be less easily spotted at first but links back a common fairytale... I liked this because Higson did not oversimplify the story by reducing the tale to certainties. Everybody has the potential to be dangerous in such a chaotic world. Again, this was a realistic storyline, slightly predictable to adult readers and maybe even to teen ones, but again the joy is in the way the escapade develops rather than an amazingly original plot.

      == The children... ==

      ...are distinct characters and there are even some stereotypes bent along the way (Higson implies that bookish thoughtfulness may be more valuable than brawn and a tough guy act). They form cliques, argue, and, yes, act childishly at times but they are also fierce and brave. In short, they are convincing, engaging and a strong feature of the story telling. Higson is not afraid to take risks with his characters either; in doing so, he treats his young readers respectfully, assuming that they can cope with sad events. The responsibility and tension the children endure is skilfully evoked but one important question is left unanswered: what will happen when the children grow up? Again, this creates suspense and made me curious regarding how this might be handled in the follow up story.

      == Conclusions ==

      Higson's concise style helps to create a convincing and frequently saddening tale. He hides a moral message or two in an engagingly dramatic tale that plays with the 'what if?' factor we are all aware of in our day to day lives. Perhaps most crucially (and unusually) for me, I felt that the book stood alone as well as creating interest in the next instalment. There were sufficient threads resolved to feel like a complete story had been told, but there were several 'live' threads waiting to develop. I usually dislike reading books in a series like this; I find that they typically end in really obvious cliffhanger mode, leaving the characters in a perilous situation that needs to be resolved to keep you gasping for more. (I threw a remote control at a TV and broke it when Friends ended on the Ross-Rachel-Emily cliffhanger at the end of season four.) By contrast, Higson seems to trust the strength of his storytelling. You'll come back. You'll have to. Otherwise, how will you learn to outwit grown ups intent on having you for dinner?

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