A zombie novel offers unexpected insights into the value of community.
Fall is a season that brews internal conflict: I adore the multicolored leaves, stiff breezes, and pumpkin-scented everything (except candles — way too sweet!), but there’s no denying it precedes winter, a time of literal and metaphorical darkness for me.
In an attempt to insulate myself from the coming months, I stick to cozy fantasy books. So when I saw Megan Bannen’s The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy described as an adult version of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, I knew it would pair perfectly with my pumpkin-spice lattes.
What I adored most about Hart Ralston, Mercy Birdsall, and the entire quirkily endearing cast of characters surrounding them, is how willing they are to learn and grow. When Hart, a lonely marshal tasked with vanquishing zombies and transporting their corpses to undertakers, and Mercy, the daughter of one such undertaker filling in for her father, meet in the course of their duties, it’s hate at first sight. She dubs him “Hart-ache”; he calls her “Merciless.”
Though Hart and Mercy don’t realize it, there’s no reason for this hate. Each has preconceived notions about the other — a problem not limited to fantasy tales set in faraway worlds — and both cling to them rather than make any attempt at reconciliation.
When Hart, feeling exceptionally lonely during a foray into the zombie lands, writes a spontaneous note addressed only “to a friend,” he opens himself up more than he has in years, free in the knowledge that it can never be delivered. He drops it in a mailbox, and the post animal makes an executive decision to deliver it to Mercy.
(Of the many, many things I enjoyed about this book, the existence of post animals — who range from gallant to grumpy and decide the fate of unaddressed letters — is in my top five. Bassareus, the cantankerous rabbit who collects and delivers Hart’s mail, and Horatio, the elegant owl who tends to Mercy’s, are two of the novel’s standout characters.)
As Hart and Mercy get to know each other through their anonymous letters (for Mercy, too, is lonelier than she seems), it becomes clear their initial feelings of mutual dislike are based purely on stubbornness. Given a chance to anonymously unburden themselves, each shares secrets they’ve been afraid to confront and feels freer for it.
When I started this book, I expected it to be a light read. And yet, as Bannen elucidates the struggles of her characters, I found myself struck by how close she was coming to describing me. Although I’ve neither exterminated zombies nor performed the grim functions of an undertaker, the last few years have left me, like Hart and Mercy, steeped in a kind of desperate loneliness.
In fact, the strategy the protagonists unwittingly use to dig themselves out of that debilitating hole is similar to the one I’ve been using: reaching out to others, speaking my truth, and providing support to loved ones in return. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been consistently worthwhile, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s helped me on this road. I only hope I can offer them aid in return and, like Hart and Mercy, find and tend to my community along the way.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.