Book review: The Other Life by Susanne Winnacker

The tenderness of a teenage girl’s sexual awakening played out against a city stalked by savage mutants ... it’s a love affair to die for!

Susanne Winnacker’s perfectly pitched young adult novel takes two age-old themes – romance and horror – and turns them into a dazzling dystopian blockbuster.

A naïve 15-year-old girl, trapped for one fifth of her life in an underground bunker, falls for a good-looking 19-year-old boy who rescues her from certain death only hours after she resurfaces into what will now be her real world.

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It’s the stuff that fairytales are made of but for Sherry and Joshua, it’s the start of a nightmare with no certainty of a happy-ever-after ending.

The Other Life – set amidst the ruins of Los Angeles after a rabies virus has caused most of the population to mutate into terrifying killers known as Weepers – is a gripping and gritty page-turner with an achingly beautiful teen romance at its fast-beating heart.

The contrast between the remaining humans’ desperate battle for survival and the slow awakening of the love between Sherry and Joshua is subtly counterpointed by Winnacker’s narrative device of providing snatches of Sherry’s ‘Other Life,’ those halcyon days before catastrophe struck.

Sherry enjoyed a normal life until three years, one month, one week and six days ago when she and her family – mum, dad, grandma, granddad, brother Bobby and sister Mia – took to their home-made bunker on the advice of the US military.

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A rabies virus was getting out of control and spreading to humans. The only means of escape was to stay underground for four years and hope that the virus had run its course.

During that time granddad has died, his body is in the now empty freezer, and the family is down to its last tin of corned beef. There’s only one thing for it – dad and Sherry will have to step out of their relative safety zone and go looking for food.

Above ground they find a vision of hell. The city has been bombed to try to halt the spread of the virus, their neighbours’ bodies lie mangled and half eaten on the lawn, and there’s not a soul in sight.

But worse is to come when they drive to a deserted supermarket and are ambushed by a deadly mutant, a hunched beast with yellow, weeping eyes that flicker with madness ... and raw hunger.

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To the rescue comes drop-dead gorgeous Joshua who carries a screaming Sherry to safety, but dad has been injured and captured by the Weepers and this is no time to try to find him.

Sherry and her family take shelter with a small group of other people at an old winery, Joshua’s Safe Haven, but he is a troubled young man who has become obsessed with killing the Weepers, and his desire for vengeance threatens to put all their lives at risk...

The superbly understated love affair between Sherry and Joshua is exquisitely developed and the dominant use of time – the past, the present and its constant measurement in terms of days, hours, minutes and seconds – adds both poignancy and depth to the dilemma of the two young survivors.

The Other Life is a clever and compelling debut full of character and contrasts, and its intriguing denouement promises more to come...

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

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