Review: The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan
Reviewed by Gillian Polack
There are two important things I need to state up front. Firstly, I have not read the book The Dead-Tossed Waves follows (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) – The Dead-Tossed Waves therefore stands alone for me, and all the knowledge I have of the world and the characters is from within the novel itself. Secondly, this is a zombie novel. For the most part it is a great deal more than a zombie novel, for the focus is on the coming of age and into the wisdom to survive of Gabry, the protagonist. While it has far more to it than zombies and while the zombies are seldom given that name, it’s still a zombie novel and it covers the bases that a zombie novel must cover: how does one kill a zombie, what happens when one is infected, what happens when one’s friends are no longer the humans they were, how does the world live through a zombie apocalypse.
Alongside the zombies, are teenagers. Teenagers who have to face real insecurities and problems larger than anyone ought to face. It’s not just a coming of age novel, it’s coming of age in a fantasy world where the burdens are almost too difficult to bear. And yes, because the world is post-apocalyptic, it is our world that Gabry faces. Our world gone horribly wrong. Even a ride at a fun fair can be perilous in this small, compact and very edgy place. It belongs on a bookshelf next to Scott Westerfeld and Libba Bray.
Ryan’s capacity to bring together these two types of novels and focusing very strongly on character is very occasionally tested, but, for the most part, she succeeds triumphantly. What works especially well is her understanding that human beings do not always make wise decisions and that they can leave others to flounder even when operating with the best intentions. Gabry, for instance, breaks one simple rule on a night out with fiends and the rest of the novel is the unravelling of her life that results. The highlight of the novel is not whether the town will survive or whether humanity will survive, but whether Gabry can piece together the mess she and her friends have made and somehow move on. It’s a very strong post-apocalyptic narrative simply because it focuses on the personal and the intimate.
At its best, where Ryan clings to the tiny world and explores the consequences of bad decisions in tough circumstances, this novel is extraordinarily good. The downside is that it contains a significant element of wish fulfillment at crucial points. Also, near the end is a moment when I wondered why I needed to know such heavy-laden detail. It felt like I was given a disquisition on ship engineering while watching the Titanic sink. It also felt as if Ryan were preparing for another novel before she had quite finished this one: her attention was distracted for a short while and it took my attention with it. Despite these quibbles, it’s a strong novel.