“The Enemy” by Charlie Higson

I borrowed The Enemy from the library on one of my many visits (I practically live there, and really need to return some books before I go borrowing any more) because I’d seen a post praising it on Tumblr. While we had most of the books in the school library where I worked last summer, I’d never paid them a great deal of attention, but that Tumblr post prompted me to pick it up.

the enemy

The Enemy is a dystopian YA novels more reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children than of any of those which have populated cinema screens lately (e.g. The Hunger Games, Divergent). A disease wiped out almost everyone over the age of fourteen, and those that remain are zombie-like creatures happy to kill and eat children. Having lost the ability to reason or to talk, the grown-ups are only a danger while they can catch the kids, but the children are fighting to survive nonetheless.

I have one word to describe this book: horrifying.

I’m not saying it was a bad book. It has a likeable cast of characters with clear, distinct personalities and voices. The London setting is firmly established not only through the use of geography, but also through slang that I recognise from school (shout out to Higson for using the word ‘mullered’, which I’ve only seen in one other book before). The plot is not only exciting but also reflects the nature of class struggles and corrupt attempts at gaining power.

But class struggles are placed side by side with cannibalism. Nine-year-olds set people on fire. Teenagers club each other to death. People literally explode, their eyeballs bursting because of pressure inside their skull. The infected grown-ups wander around oozing pus and covered in boils. Children kill and eat dogs to survive — when they’re not eating even more horrifying things.

Maybe if I’d read this when I was twelve, I would have been able to overlook the sheer horror facing me on every page, but now as an adult all I want to do is protect these children. The oldest of them is fourteen (for logical reasons), and some of them are absolutely tiny. They shouldn’t be fighting! Don’t make them kill each other! But Higson does, and plenty of characters die in this book. Oh, you were attached to them? You thought he wouldn’t go through with it and actually kill them? Too bad.

It’s gutsy. A lot of children’s and YA novels seem incapable of killing off any characters in a permanent manner (Cassandra Clare’s novels lack a real sense of danger because despite all the near-death experiences people just don’t die), but The Enemy doesn’t suffer from that. Quite the opposite. Every time I was beginning to get emotionally attached to a character, wham bam they’ve been brutally murdered and their head is on a stick.

There was also the added horror of knowing that if I lived in this world I’d be dead. Actually, I got thinking about this. It was published in 2010, so depending on whether it’s set then or a bit earlier (or later) I might just have sneaked in under the “14” cut-off point. I’m just not sure I wanted to.

In short, this is a well-written book, but either I’m getting old or I’m just too sensitive to properly enjoy it, because I was genuinely horrified by it.

Rating: ***

Find ‘The Enemy’ on Amazon (UK)

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