Alden Bell — The Reapers Are the Angels

This is a good summary of my experience reading Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels: my boyfriend and I were driving to New Jersey to meet some members of his family at the Cherry Hill Mall. Usually I don’t read in the car when it’s just the two of us, but I’d been reading the book while I was waiting and I was halfway through and I couldn’t put it down. By the time we got there I had about ten pages left, he parked the car and got out but I was still frantically trying to get to the end. “Honey,” he said, “Come on!” “I JUST NEED TO FINISH THIS BOOK OKAY LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” I snapped at him. Then I proceeded to sit in the car until I was done.

If this is a new trend–that is, the Southern Gothic style writing and post apocalyptic setting–then I for one am all for it. Bell does it quite well.

Temple is the fifteen-year-old protagonist of the book, a girl with secrets haunting her and a short lifetime of memories from which she’s running. She’s coming up the country from the South, beginning in Florida, but no matter where she goes, violence seems to follow, driving her on. And that’s not exactly surprising considering that 25 years ago, the dead came back (in the best zombie tradition Bell does not attempt to explain why–they simply are). A blighted world is all that Temple has ever known, from her first years in an orphanage to the last five that she has spent running from her past.

The book is episodic, as Temple moves from one community to another, covering the varying forms of human reaction to adversity: to move freely and hunt, to hole up behind secure doors, to pretend that nothing is happening, and of course, far more monstrous and terrifying fates. Throughout her presence changes the lives of those around her, for better or for worse, due in part to the conflicting forces that drive her: the darkness within and the fact that despite her deadliness, she has a bit of a soft spot in the very depths of her heart.

You might not think that Temple would be an easy character to love, but she is. Equally at home beheading a “meatskin” and appreciating the small beauty of electric fish beneath the moon, she and the characters she encounter have a poetic plainness in the tradition of O’Connor and McCarthy. Even among the horror–still poetically described–the brief moments of beauty, those fish, a sunset, a glass of Coke with ice in it–remind you that though the world may have changed irrecoverably, people remain the same.

This is at once a gripping road novel, a story of the horrors that humans can perpetrate upon each other, and a bit of a coming of age (in the accepting responsibility sense–anyone arguing that Temple is anything but an old soul is quite simply wrong). As I said, it was difficult to put down and finished all too soon. Really a lovely and terrifying book and highly recommended.

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