Aside from a few dozen or so songs--the unremittingly-cheery sort of dreck I can only charitably term “uplifting”--there seems to be something of a universal consensus that life can be pretty awful.
Sound overly harsh? Let’s look to some experts then, shall we? Consider that the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is that “life means suffering”. Think back to John Hobbes, who concluded in his 1651 book Leviathan that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. “ Of course, if you prefer your proof to be of the less-erudite variety, there’s always that late-20th-century classic, “Life sucks, and then you die”. (Lacks a bit in the eloquence department, but it gets the same point across, in inimical Bill-&-Ted fashion.)
With such depressing thoughts bearing down on us like so many dark, angry stormclouds--and the fact that most of us have just seen too much bad to fall for the false promises in those sappy songs--it's no wonder a lot of people look for ways to escape the unhappiness.
That's what Lissa Wilson is thinking in Narrelle M. Harris’s sometimes-amusing, frequently-poignant, and always-thoughtful story, The Opposite of Life, a book about what it means to be alive, dead, or somewhere in between.
When we meet the Melbourne-native Lissa, she’s at a crossroads--one of those brief but eventful periods that she'll be able to recall with perfect clarity (whether she wants to or not) for the rest of her life. This particular crossroads starts with a loser boyfriend. After he dumped her a few months earlier, she's fallen back on the time-honored tradition of wallowing in self-pity and being maudlin. (Un-health foods, mass quantities of chocolate, and weepy movies to the rescue.)
That’s all about to change, though, because her friend Evie has finally succeeded in forcing her to leave the house in pursuit of some fun. For the first time in... forever, the girls are going clubbing.
The goth bar they wind up at is cool, with good music and interesting people--especially Daniel. Attractive in a Byronic way, he seems to feel the same spark between them that Lissa feels, and after several months of non-stop moping, she realizes she’s actually sort of... happy. Finally.
Until nature calls, that is. (Now, something as prosaic as a jot to the restroom wouldn’t normally be a buzzkill; they’re in a club, throwing down some drinks--so of course nature’s gonna call.) The problem for Lissa (and her reawakening libido) is the two bloody bodies she nearly falls over when she goes to the loo. (Who knew, having the image of so much gore burned onto one’s retinas would put such a crimp on all that eagerly-anticipated snogging?)
Lissa and friends are naturally shaken by the events of the night, but hey, they’re young and, after a few days, bounce back and decide to go out again. Everything appears to be going as swimmingly as before... until someone else discovers the mutilated body of a local drug pusher on the steps. Worse, Lissa can’t find Daniel; he's just disappeared, without a trace.
After a couple days and still no Daniel, some friends hold a candlelight vigil for his return. That kind of New Age-y, woo-woo twaddle isn't Lissa’s bag at all, but she goes, because she misses him. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Another dead body turns up, this time behind the house. Lissa finds it... and sees something else, besides. A shadowy, fast-moving figure (which seemed to place the body there), followed by an odd (but equally-quick-moving), nebbishy dude in a Hawaiian shirt.
She's fed up. The media won’t leave her alone; she’s now been at the scene of four dead bodies. The police are treating her with a certain degree of suspicion. Her coworkers are handling her with kid gloves, apparently fearing she’ll go off the deep end. And, there’s her family to deal with--her messed-up, fractured family, which has already dealt with one death (from childhood disease) and another (caused by a lethal combination of heroin and unhappiness). There’s only one thing for it--try to investigate this bloody mystery on her own, to (hopefully) get everyone off her back.
Investigating is, however, much harder than it's always seemed for her favorite sleuths, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Nonetheless, Lissa perseveres and eventually makes a shocking discovery: there are vampires out there, real-life (-death?) members of the walking (but not breathing), blood-swilling undead, mingling with the rest of society. (In the daylight. Not sparkling. If you’re curious...)
Lissa foists herself on Mr. Hawaiian Shirt--aka Gary (the vampire)--once she tracks him down, persuading him to let her be Watson to his Sherlock. As the body count continues to rise across Melbourne--and as Lissa fears for her life--the (not-so) intrepid duo race around the city, traveling from the seedier parts to the ‘burbs, and talking to some very scared mouthbreathers and some very scary bloodsuckers. All the while, an inevitable showdown is drawing ever nearer...
The Opposite of Life is a different sort of Urban Fantasy, and definitely an out-of-the-ordinary vampire tale. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Most of us have done/seen/read/heard about such crazy stuff that we’re pretty blasé about so-called impossible things. This book takes a different tack; once Lissa (and we) quickly get over the fact of vampires, the story becomes more about discovering what being one means (and the before and after)... as well as what being human does--and doesn’t--mean. The two things are not, necessarily, what you might expect.
Life may be hard and cold... but it still has the ability to surprise and delight, as Lissa comes to realize. It's up to her (and each of us) to make that be enough.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.25 out of 5 mousies
[Note: This book is an Australian printing, and doesn't seem to be available (yet?) in the U.S. For anyone interested in obtaining a copy, contact either the publisher, www.pulpfictionpress.com.au/theoppositeoflife, or head straight to Ms. Harris's website, www.narrellemharris.com. You won't be sorry you did. :)]