The Undead Truth of Us by Britney S. Lewis
Sixteen-year-old Zharie Young is absolutely certain her mother morphed into a zombie before her untimely death, but she can't seem to figure out why. Why her mother died, why her aunt doesn't want her around, why all her dreams seem suddenly, hopelessly out of reach. And why, ever since that day, she's been seeing zombies everywhere.
Then Bo moves into her apartment building—tall, skateboard in hand, freckles like stars, and an undeniable charm. Z wants nothing to do with him, but when he transforms into a half zombie right before her eyes, something feels different. He contradicts everything she thought she knew about monsters, and she can't help but wonder if getting to know him might unlock the answers to her mother's death.
As Zharie sifts through what's real and what's magic, she discovers a new truth about the world: Love can literally change you—for good or for dead.
In this surrealist journey of grief, fear, and hope, Britney S. Lewis's debut novel explores love, zombies, and everything in between in an intoxicating amalgam of the real and the fantastic.
TITLE: The Undead Truth of Us
AUTHOR: Britney S. Lewis
PUBLISHER: Disney Audiobooks
LENGTH: 368 pages (9 hours 20 minutes)
AGE: Young Adult
GENRE: Fantasy, Horror
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.
THE UNDEAD TRUTH OF US is a story of grief and complicated relationships. Zharie’s mother died recently and unexpectedly, but in her final days Zharie perceived her as a zombie, an undead person with unintelligible speech and pieces of her sloughing off. Now, Zharie is living with her aunt when Bo, a boy around her age, moves into another apartment in the building. Since her mother's death she has been seeing many people as zombies, but is fascinated against her better judgment when Bo sometimes appears halfway as a zombie, rather than the full and permanent transformation that Zharie has come to expect.
Zharie has four main relationships with other people. There’s her mom, though she’s deceased when the story begins, and parts of their life are shown through memories of their time together. Zharie's connection to her mom (both past and present) is very driven by their mutual love of a dance style called West Coast Swing. They’re both Black and the competition space for this style of dance is overwhelmingly full of white people, to the point that often Zharie's mom was the only Black instructor in any space. Since her mother's death, Zharie has been practicing in her room rather than going back to the studio. This is both because of a lack of money and because being the Black person in the room serves as a visceral reminder of her loss. For those still among the living, there’s her aunt with whom she now lives, who is spending most of her time working long hours (I think in multiple jobs). Next is Luca, a boy from her school who at some point decided that they were going to be friends and hasn’t really take a no for an answer, so also Zharie doesn’t want to push him away completely. Generally, she’s conflicted and often annoyed by his presence. Finally there’s Bo, the new kid who moves into the apartment building, the boy, who is sometimes halfway a zombie, he finds her beautiful, and wants to hang out with her, gradually drawing her into his circle of friends. Bo tries to pull Zharie into his life at a pace that seems dizzying, asking her to different things, but often failing to explain the particulars of the event, in a way that makes her feel off kilter even before the undead encroach on her attempts to relax .The final major character who perhaps ought to have a relationship with Zharie but does not is her absentee father, generally referred to as the "sperm donor" by Zharie.
This is a very character-driven story, to the point that trying to explain any step after this basic setup, seems to me like it would spoil the plot in a way that I don’t want to accidentally do. Zharie is trying to work through her grief, to understand that shape and figure out what place if any, it’ll having her life.
Because it’s set in contemporary reality, most of the worldbuilding is in is related to what’s going on in Zharie's head, how she relates to the people in her life, and what dance means to her. She lives in the USA and her dad is in another state, but the worldbuilding is pretty sparse on what would often be more logistical details in a contemporary novel with a teen protagonist. It takes place as school lets out for the summer, and there's more conversations of where she attends than there are moments set there within the story.
Zharie uses Vincent van Gogh's life and paintings as a way to process the emotions she’s feeling and the strange things she’s seeing around her. No one else seems to notice the zombies, and in trying to understand herself Zharie keeps re-searching zombies, the undead, and the life of Vincent van Gogh. In addition to the zombies, Zharie sees intense colors, either layered upon or interwoven with the world. I’m not totally sure which they are, because that may be a distinction without a difference in this case.
The story maintains a tension in the question of whether what Zharie is seeing is real or if it’s a manifestation of some underlying mental illness that’s affecting the way she sees the world. The parallels drawn with van Gogh don’t specifically resolve this tension, because, as this book is shelved as fantasy/horror, the implication could be that in this version of reality, maybe he, too, was seeing something real. Honestly, if it weren’t for the very last line of the book, along with the explanations Zharie finally figures out for who looks like a zombie, this seems like it wouldn’t have to strictly be fantasy in order for the story to happen. I wondered if this was where the book was going to go, and then it did… and I guess it does fit the book. But it’s a cliché enough moment that it sent me back out of the story right as it was coming to an end. This also complicates my reaction to the book because of the way it’s entangling potential mental illness with a possible magical explanation, and the conclusion that there is some kind of reality or way in which she is perceiving something with a genuine and understandable cause outside of her own brain. This isn’t the first book I’ve read that’s leaned in to the difficulty in distinguishing fantasy from reality when there isn’t a meaningful way to check the perceptions in one’s one mind, but this particular resolution happens to not quite be in the direction I would’ve preferred.
Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, blood, gore, body horror, parental death, death.
Moderate CW for cursing, mental illness, alcohol, vomit, emotional abuse, toxic friendship, toxic relationship, drug use, injury detail, abandonment.
Minor CW for classism, sexual content, pregnancy, excrement, forced institutionalization, alcohol, anxiety, depression.