Courtney Summers’s This is Not a Test is not a book I should read before bed. Not just because of the horrors of a sudden zombie apocalypse, but because the vivid, intimate portrayal of depression and suicidal ideation hit me in vulnerable places, taking me back to the times when I was most depressed and suicidal. Reading it for the second time for this review, I was able to get beyond meeting the girl who didn’t want to survive the zombie apocalypse and see a well-rounded portrait of severe depression in extreme circumstances.
We first meet Sloane planning her “exit” due to not having any remaining way of getting away from her abusive father. This framing is essential narratively, since Sloane spends so much of the novel being haunted by the spectre of her father’s presence, but it’s an overdone characterization of depression as being in response to trauma. I think too often in fiction, depression has to be explained through a traumatic backstory. My depression doesn’t stem from abuse or trauma, and although trauma can be a root for depression and other psychiatric disorders, they also arise organically as any other disability can. But this is the route Summers chose to take, and it pays off beautifully.
Like most YA and genre novels, this book moves on the back of plot: a girl who didn’t want to survive in the regular world is one of a few survivors of the zombie apocalypse, trapped with classmates in their fortress of a school. But the warped perspective that Sloane’s depression gives to her situation is what makes this book special. Her preoccupation with suicide informs so much of Part One, first wishing that she had died when she tried before, then working on planning a death that will be noble and mean something to her companions. This is the crux of suicidal thinking, to my mind; dying is easy, especially in the world of This is Not a Test, but dying correctly, that takes planning and preparation. In a word, control. Control is what Sloane lacks in her life before, and starts to be able to have, paradoxically, after the world goes to hell.
Now, if Sloane actually succeeded in her attempts, we wouldn’t have the rest of the novel (or the follow up novella, Please Remain Calm, released this year), but that is not the only reason she does not follow through with her ideas. The fact that she fights back at a moment when surrender would get her the death she wants isn’t out of character for a person with depression. Suicidal thoughts are intrusive, but often momentary, coming and going, and the ability to put off acting for now can mean the difference between suicide and survival. People who survive suicide attempts often report a sudden change of heart right at the end as the body finally overpowers the depressive thoughts and tries to live. And in this book, we see suicide in multiple ways: Sloane’s last minute fight, Harrison’s death with dignity, Trace’s sudden gunshot. We see suicide from the inside and the outside, and all of them are remarkably accurate.
Summers doesn’t drop the depressive lens throughout the book; after establishing Sloane’s perspective, we are allowed to ride along with her warped view on proceedings. Sloane’s numbness, inaction, sudden mood shifts, and dwelling on her sister’s betrayal are all both characterizations and symptomatic on her depression. It can be a hard thing to create a character with a psychological disorder without them becoming just a collection of symptoms, but This is Not a Test manages it handily. Sloane is a complete character, and her thoughts, actions, and inactions all come from both the character and her disability. While this portrayal can be triggering, as I mentioned in the beginning of the review, reading this book can provide a mirror of survival as well as provide the control that can feel so elusive in a depressive fog. As I like to remind my students, if the book is getting to be too much for you, you can always put it down.