Imagine a disease afflicting everyone over the age of 16. Those it doesn’t kill become flesh-eating monsters preying on the children who have been left behind. Where would you live? What would you do? How would you defend yourself from the monsters that see you as food? Author Charlie Higson has imagined just such a scenario in THE ENEMY, an adventure set in post-apocalyptic London where kids have learned to fend for themselves.
THE ENEMY focuses on the Waitrose kids, who have set up their fortress in a supermarket where they have ready access to supplies and can easily defend the windowless building. Arran is the leader, holding everyone together. Achilleus is the warrior, helping kids to hunt and fight. There is Freak and Deke, two adventurous scouts who leave their tag wherever they go. And there is Maxine, the peacemaker who organizes the kids and makes sure no one gets left behind. The children have set up a fairly stable life, but know they can’t last in their supermarket fortress forever. They are running out of supplies, and attacks from the flesh-eating adults are becoming more violent and frequent. In the first chapter, they’ve lost one of the kids to a raid.
When a stranger arrives telling them that there is plenty of food and safety in central London where children have set up a government in Buckingham Palace, they have a tough decision to make. Do they stay at Waitrose and wait out the siege? Or do they join forces with kids at neighboring markets and venture into the unknown in the hopes of finding a place better than what they’ve left behind?
The strength of THE ENEMY isn’t just in Higson’s action-packed writing, but in nuanced characters and the conundrums they face as they fight for their survival. When things at the palace aren’t exactly as they seem, the Waitrose kids must choose carefully how to align their loyalties and remaining resources. The obvious choice would be to depict a world in which sheer brutality wins. But the novel is more complex than that. Higson’s characters reflect the fact that there are many strategies for survival, including the abilities to outwit or simply outrun the enemy. Small Sam, who is abducted by the adults at the beginning of the book, finds that his best strategy is to employ his knack for fitting into small spaces where the grownups can’t follow him. He is resourceful and good at hiding, which keeps him alive while he travels across London attempting to reunite with the rest of the Waitrose kids.
THE ENEMY is full of hard choices and interesting conundrums as circumstances pit personalities against each other in a fight not just for survival, but also for dominance. Higson peppers the novel with references to other well-known children’s books that feature young people in terrifying circumstances, including PETER PAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and ogre tales from the brothers Grimm. As the children start banding together in larger groups and making decisions about how to govern themselves, I couldn’t help but think of LORD OF THE FLIES. THE ENEMY is a strikingly modern version of this classic novel --- still taught in many classrooms today --- though it features more variety and complexity in its survival tactics and leadership styles then encountered on that lonely desert isle.
One of the things I enjoyed most about THE ENEMY is the interplay of the characters as their strategies and situations change. At one point, Maxie is left as the leader of the Waitrose kids. The palace has demanded that she use her best fighters to help subdue a neighboring group of children. One of her friends tells her, “There are two types of leaders in this world, Maxie. Wartime leaders and peacetime leaders. And they’re totally different. They need different skills. A wartime leader needs to show no weakness. A wartime leader’s got to show that one or two individuals don’t really matter. What matters is the survival of the group. It doesn’t matter…how we win this, just so long as we do.” But Maxie is equally as convinced that brutality --- especially against other children --- isn’t the answer. How she manages to bridge this conundrum in a situation where all parties are set against compromise is one of the book’s great victories. Equally as fascinating is the way Achilleus, who is most inclined to use force as a solution, comes around to see her point of view.
THE ENEMY ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting there will be a second book. There are several mysteries that are unresolved, most notably where the disease comes from, the possibility of a cure, and whether or not the kids will become infected after they turn 16. I’m generally not a fan of “zombie” books, but this novel won me over by the strength of its plotting and characters, and through its sheer force of action and imagination. I found that I really cared about these kids and was rooting for them to win. It also made me want to ask others about what their survival strategy might be if they found themselves in a world like the one presented in THE ENEMY.
Everyone has secret strengths that are sometimes only visible in special circumstances. Higson knows this. Sometimes it takes a zombie novel for the rest of us to be able to see it.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on May 10, 2011