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Originally published Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Warm Bodies': Isaac Marion's novel of zombie love

Seattle author Isaac Marion's debut novel "Warm Bodies" is a zombie tale based on the Romeo and Juliet story. Marion will read from his book Thursday at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Isaac Marion

The author of "Warm Bodies" will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).
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It's after the zombie apocalypse: "Buildings have collapsed. Rusted cars clog the streets. Most glass has shattered, and the wind drifting through the hollow high-rises moans like an animal left to die." But the narrator of Seattle author Isaac Marion's debut novel "Warm Bodies" (Atria Books, 224 pp., $24) doesn't know exactly how old all this ruination is.

R, as he calls himself (the rest of his name has rotted away), is a zombie. He can't remember his former existence, can't read, can't speak more than four syllables at a time. He does have a fondness for the Beatles and Sinatra, and a sort of Batcave/Fortress of Solitude hidden inside a long-grounded jet. But life among the undead is meaningless for him until he kills a suicidal teen leading a scavenging party and eats his brain.

Zombies, in Marion's gruesome yet poetic vision, eat brains to get high on memories like those they've lost. When R consumes the teen's gray matter, he becomes infused with that boy's love for Julie Grigio, the feisty blonde accompanying him. R saves Julie from being killed by the rest of his pack and takes her back with him to their airport lair. He convinces her he means no harm, and when she inevitably returns to her home in Citi Stadium ("The largest human habitation in what used to be America"), he follows her.

Absurd as its premise could be called, "Warm Bodies" works on lots of levels. It's a moving romance that makes obvious allusions to Shakespeare: R is a stand-in for Romeo, and Julie for Juliet. It's a metaphor for the battle between the forces of hope and despair. And it's a paean to the power of storytelling.

Before their fatal encounter, Perry, the teen whose brain R eats, has given up his dream of being a writer. He sees no point in it. When he dies, he's already dead. But Rosso, a Citi Stadium security officer who is instrumental in the novel's redemptive ending, reads and rereads the 4,000-year-old epic "Gilgamesh;" though, "The world that birthed that story is long gone," he says, "it continues to touch the present and future because someone cared enough about that world to keep it. To put it into words."

The words Marion uses to describe his grim near-future are silken smooth. They slip through the mind's grasp easily, pleasurably, leaving hardly a hint of themselves in the images they evoke. In among the starkest of these images, the skulls and withered sinews, the screams of terror and shotgun blasts, moments of laughter shine, as when an overly friendly dog takes a bite out of R's leg while he's trying to pass for Living.

And there's a defiant joy, too, as R and Julie face down armies both human and zombie so they can be together. Is it stupid to love one another? Is it pointless to create pictures, stories, plays, poems, songs, telling those yet to come about our world and making sure we, too, remember what it has been? No, say Marion's warm bodies. Doing these kinds of things is how we stay alive.

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