Lovers of this genre know that every YA dystopia novel has as its protagonist a teenage hero who fights to survive in a world scarred by some apocalyptic disaster. This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers turns that notion into a lie. The book opens with the main character Sloane contemplating suicide. Sloane has an abusive father, but despite her dysfunctional life, she hadn’t thought of killing herself until her beloved older sister Lily runs away leaving Sloane on her own with her father. Before she ran away, Lily had been the protective big sister, and she and Sloane were extremely close. Now Sloane can’t deal with the betrayal on top of the abuse.
One morning about to be hurt again by her father, something unexpected happens. People start turning into zombies. When one of them breaks in her father gestures to her to stay inside away from the windows, but she steps out into the street instead ready to meet her fate. Instead of death she runs into some survivors who assume she wants to band together with them as they try to find a safe haven from the madness that has overtaken their town. Sloane is swept along with them as they hole up in the local high school.
One aspect of the book that I loved is the way the high school setting is reminiscent of the movie The Breakfast Club because of the stereotypes of the teenage survivors forced to live together to survive. There’s Miss Perfect Student Council President Grace and her jock brother Trace, the one all the cheerleaders would go for if they weren’t all dead. There’s Harrison the freshman nerd who gets on everyone’s nerves and Cary, the teenage boy who has to be a man to lead the others, and Rick. Finally, there’s Rhys the sensitive but tough guy who seems to understand that Sloane is experiencing some heavy emotions other than just shock that their world has been turned upside down.
Although they all need each other, they still behave like typical teenagers while living together. Cary and Trace behave like testosterone fueled rivals, though there is a deeper reason for their animosity than the usual teenage enmity. Harrison whines and complains. Grace and Rhys each have hormonal encounters with one of the boy survivors.
I thought it was very realistic that the teens didn’t all get along perfectly, that just because they are forced together under these circumstances doesn’t mean they automatically become friends. As they plan how to survive each day, all Sloane can think about is how not to survive. The ‘infecteds’ or zombies in the book really take a back seat to the inner world of the most unexpected female lead character I have ever read in a dystopian fiction book. Is it too simplistic to draw the parallel that just as the zombies represent the fine line between life and death, so does this broken girl?