Given the saturation of zombie narratives currently permeating fiction, the likelihood of discovering a new take on the trope is small at best. Yet, Contaminated by Em Garner manages to do just that by drawing upon traditional zombie conventions, while also introducing an original brand of satire. Told from the perspective of seventeen year old Velvet, Contaminated takes place in a world thrown off kilter by a virus that turns ordinary people into rage fueled killers.
The outbreak is thought to be the result of some poorly made batches of ThinPro, a water with added protein designed to make you lose weight quickly. The infected, called Connies, are at first neutralized via crass lobotomies performed by sticking needles in the eyes of the infected. As the outbreak begins to show signs of containment, the government creates kennels for the Connies. Those who are claimed by their families are outfitted in shock collars to keep their behavior in check, while those who are not claimed are euthanized in a process called Mercy Mode.
When the story opens, Velvet is at the kennels searching for her mother in what has become a monthly ritual. In a stroke of happenstance, she finds her mother and takes her back to the rundown, tenement building that has become the home of Velvet and her sister, Opal. What follows is a seemingly simple story of a family trying to rebuild itself in the face of a new, horrifying reality. But a closer look reveals a penetrating deconstruction of American culture. For example, the descriptions of how the Connies are treated by the government and those not infected can easily be read as a commentary on how society treats perceived outcasts. Similarly, Velvet’s removal from her government subsidized home is illegal but without financial resources she is powerless to do anything about it. Garner creates a dystopian universe whose similarities to our own creates a sense of discomfort for the reader that works to increase the tension of the story.
Contaminated is the type of book that sneaks up on you. Most of this is a result of Garner’s strong characterizations. Much like Katniss in The Hunger Games and Kaelyn in The Way We Fall, Velvet feels intimately the responsibility for caring for herself, her mother, and her younger sister. She isn’t always likable but that is far from a detriment. Velvet shoulders so much responsibility that for her to not react negatively at times simply wouldn’t ring true. This devotion to creating well rounded characters also extends to Opal, Velvet’s ten year old sister. Rather than have her be an obedient, wise beyond her years pre-teen, the author imbues Opal with qualities that are as understandable as they are frustrating. Prone to temper tantrums, Opal is annoying but compassionate to others. In essence, she is stuck in a suspended childhood due to circumstances beyond her control.
As the first book in an anticipated series, this first book serves to establish the characters and their relationships with one another. It’s short on plot which is an issue I’m hopeful the second book remedies. This shortcoming aside, I really loved Contaminated, especially Velvet, and I’m excited to have a new take charge heroine to introduce to teen readers interested in horror.