This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)
“She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.
It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it man-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.
Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes.
But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.”
Wow… this one is weird and twisted and oh-so-deliciously disturbing. Reality shows have gone this route in the past, even going so far as to stage post-apocalyptic scenarios, but imagine what would happen if an isolated person who had already encountered well-crafted fake dead bodies stumbled into the end of the world. Or at least, something in the general neighborhood of the world’s end.
That was what mainly struck me about this book–the kind of severe mental gymnastics that the main character goes through as she progresses along her journey to get home. Her struggles to find food are characterized as challenges staged by the show, and she sees clues to where she should be going in the most innocuous of things. Worse, though, is her viewing dead bodies as “props”. It’s completely logical, since it fits into the milieu of the show, but watching her walk past corpses and think of them as fake is very unsettling.
Zoo’s journey home is told in alternating chapters with a narrative about the filming of the show. Here, we meet the others with whom Zoo became acquainted, although these chapters only refer to the people by their stereotyped “roles” on the show. If you’ve ever watched reality TV, you know how people get branded as the “cool one”, the “bitch”, the “crazy one”, etc. Here we get Tracker, Banker, Waitress and the always-fun Exorcist. There are quite a few not-so-subtle pokes at the reality TV genre (like the nickname thing), but these chapters also exist to show readers a growing portrait of how Zoo could believe that she was still playing a game, as well as showing her survival skills, both already known and learned on the show.
There’s some interesting subtext about a certain amount of survival being purely mental. Zoo has a code phrase that she can use to tap out of the game at any time, but even when she herself falls ill, she doesn’t use it, thinking that if she was really in danger the producer would rescue her. The thought of that phrase also sustains her as she makes her way across a landscape that is increasingly hard to ignore as being real–she has the option to give up and go back to comfort (she thinks), but just knowing that it’s there is enough for her.
It’s so sad to watch her growing unease about what’s going on around her, and her efforts to keep convincing herself that what she sees is just part of an elaborate game. Her struggles with the game are juxtapositioned with her struggles in her personal life–will she ever be ready to take the plunge and have kids, or will she just keep running from the thought? It takes some terrible events to lead her to awareness of her wheel-spinning on all fronts.
Oliva takes a simple premise and spins it into something grand and challenging. Ask yourself: could you survive? And what would it take?