This is Not a Test is a book of paradoxes. It’s a survival story about a girl who doesn’t want to survive, a zombie novel that isn’t really about zombies. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Now, before I lose any of you zombie fans, let me qualify my opening statement – although zombies aren’t the true focus of this book, there are still plenty of flesh-craving monsters shambling through the pages. The very first scene involves a horde of zombies attacking their neighbors, and throughout the book there’s a constant threat that someone’s face will be eaten by the undead. Still, this novel is brilliant in that the zombie apocalypse is really just a backdrop for the true crisis of the story: the fact that our narrator Sloane Price has been betrayed by her older sister, the only person she really loves.
Sloane’s sister Lily has always been the only one who understands her, the only one to protect her from their abusive father. And yet, six months before the zombies overrun their neighborhood, Lily leaves home without warning, deserting Sloane and choosing her own freedom over her sister’s wellbeing. Sloane is destroyed by Lily’s abandonment and decides to end her life rather than live with the reality that the only person who could have rescued her from her father left her behind instead.
Before Sloane gets a chance to act on this impulse, however, a mysterious infection begins turning people around the world into flesh-eating monsters. Chaos ensues, and Sloane finds herself caught up in stampede of fleeing survivors. She gets picked up by a group of five other teens, who take shelter in their abandoned high school.
Sloane’s suicidal desires are in stark contrast to her peers’ desperate determination to survive. Being inside her head is a little like being inside a carnival fun house, a surreal experience where everything’s a little off kilter. She’s suffered so much that she has no more capacity for horror; the hurt and disbelief she feels at Lily’s betrayal are so all-encompassing that everything else pales in comparison, even zombies. She’s living in her own little world of hatred and pain and psychologically remains apart from the others in the school even as she interacts with them. Sloane’s mind is a creepy place, and her mental and emotional instability are far scarier than any of the zombies in this book.
The kids with whom Sloane shares her shelter are just as interesting as Sloane herself. Watching the interactions between them is like witnessing the results of a weird social experiment – think The Breakfast Club meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies. The teenagers are all incredibly different from one another and would likely not mesh well under the best of circumstances, let alone when the world has fallen apart. Survival requires them to work together, but just because they’re fighting for a common purpose doesn’t mean they automatically bond to become a caring, tight-knit family. Their alliance is an uneasy one, and the relationships are fraught with frustration, distrust, and accusations.
The characters in Summers’ book aren’t nice people; they’re self-interested, raw, and sometimes ugly. Still, this is what makes the story so fascinating. Desperation and terror are powerful emotions, and the reactions they elicit in This is Not a Test are so compelling that I couldn’t tear myself away from the book. I had to know the results of the “experiment,” no matter how tough it was to wade through all of the pain and tragedy along the way.
This is Not a Test is one of the most memorable novels I’ve come across in a very long time. I’ve already given my copy to my sister with strict orders to read it every spare minute she gets, and I recommend you do the same. It’s one of those stories you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve closed the cover.