‘And Then I Woke Up’ by Malcolm Devlin: Perception is reality

Our And Then I Woke Up book review is an in-depth discussion of Malcolm Devlin’s intriguing novella about false narratives.

When I write a book review, I’m careful to keep it spoiler-free. My goal, after all, is to pitch the book to the right audience—the readers who I think will most appreciate a story I’ve found interesting and impactful.

And Then I Woke Up is a bit of a different beast. Not only is it a novella, coming in at just under 170 pages, it also relies on the reader knowing as little as possible going into the book.

Even the synopsis is vague:

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…

Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

None of this is a criticism of the book. In fact, I appreciate what Malcolm Devlin is attempting to do here, and so I want other readers to go into the book with as little knowledge as possible so they can come to their own conclusions.

When you’ve done that, you can come back here, and we can discuss it together. And with that, I give you my final warning: This And Then I Woke Up book review will be full of spoilers.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the terminology. You have the Others, the infected, the uninfected, and the survivors, to name a few, each of which means something different to different people, and the meanings aren’t always easy to distinguish because you have to remember who’s using these terms and what experiences they’ve had.

Our main character is Spencer, who was once infected but is now cured. The disease he had was a neurological disorder that affected the way he perceived the world. In other words, he thought he saw zombies roaming the streets. It even led him to killing about a dozen people, including some children.

After he became infected, he spent a while living as a survivor—someone who has come out of the so-called zombie apocalypse relatively unscathed (at least comparably). To the survivors, the “infected” are actually the zombies.

There’s one interesting passage between Spence and Leila, the woman he befriends at the Ironside rehabilitation center, where she talks about the Others and how she’d peer through the windows and see them watching a blank television screen, acting human but all the while being undead.

It’s hard to argue with that visual, and yet Spence has been diagnosed with a disease that warps his reality. He can no longer believe what he sees, and therefore must rely on techniques his doctors have taught him to make sure he doesn’t go off the deep end again.

And here is where it gets interesting. Just like “infected,” the term “uninfected” could refer to two different types of people. On the one hand, “uninfected” means you have not been bitten and turned into a zombie. On the other hand, it also means you do not have the disease that warps your perception of reality.

Throughout the book, I had to keep reminding myself of the definitions of these words because I’d mix them up—no, Spence wasn’t uninfected because he hasn’t been bitten; he’s infected because he has the disease. This confusion kept me off-kilter for the majority of the novella, and I never really felt like I was on even ground. I suppose that was the purpose.

After some time as a survivor, Spence begins to notice disparities in his reality. Thanks to hindsight, he knows the military has been restocking stores and houses they’ve already raided. Survivors don’t care—they’re just glad to have more supplies—but the government has done this to keep the survivors happy and contained (without supplies, they become more reckless and therefore more dangerous).

But more than that, the government has chosen certain rooms in certain houses and completely renovated them. The one Spence ran into was pink from top to bottom—the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the furniture, the curtains. Literally everything was pink. And it struck him as so odd, he started to question his reality.

After that, he would see and hear messages that no one else could. These messages asked him if he wanted to wake up, to return to the real world. After living so long as a survivor and losing the person closest to him—not to mention having trouble coming to terms with the fact that he’s killed people—Spence decided he no longer wanted to be a part of this narrative (another term the book uses to describe the supposedly made-up zombie apocalypse story).

One day, he walks up to a broken-down van, says he wants to wake up out loud, and he’s carried off to be cured of his disease. This eventually lands him in Ironside with Leila, who he will soon follow out of the rehabilitation center in order to help her join her old crew.

And now we get to the point of the book, the burden of this And Then I Woke Up book review—what is the truth? What is reality? Does reality even matter when someone else is controlling the narrative? After all, even if there is a zombie apocalypse going on, Spence is now convinced that he is the one who is infected with this disease. That makes his narrative the truth, regardless of what’s actually going on here.

I knew this little novella would break my brain when I started it, but I expected there to be a resolution. There is not. Part of me is frustrated, and the other part—the bigger part, if I’m being honest—likes it better this way. I get it. I get what Malcolm Devlin is trying to tell us.

It’s hard not to want the truth. Gun to my head, I would say there’s a zombie apocalypse and the government, the military, and the media are in bed together (imagine that), working to keep the majority of the population from realizing what’s going on. It’s easy to control people when they’re not afraid. When they have no idea what’s really happening.

Isn’t that what we’ve seen over the last five years or so? It’s been happening for much longer than that, but Trump’s America has made clear that the concept of Fake News can divide an entire country. What is real and what is false? When we’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves, we’re not paying attention to the real culprits.

Then again, it’s easier to admit that you’re seeing monsters than it is to admit you’ve contracted a disease that makes you think you’re seeing monsters. As we’ve seen in shows like The Walking Dead, zombies give humans a common enemy. The world becomes a little more black and white.

But a disease that changes your perception? There are no bad guys, and in fact, this condition might be the one to turn you into a monster. Spence spends the rest of his days trying to redeem himself for his past actions.

I hope you didn’t come to this And Then I Woke Up book review for answers because I don’t have them. I’m still not 100% convinced I’ve figured out Malcolm Devlin’s story. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re not supposed to. But I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t help but want to know the right answer.

If you have read And Then I Woke Up, let me know your thoughts and if you think you’ve figured it out. This is most certainly the kind of book that you sit down to discuss with your friends for hours on end.

‘And Then I Woke Up’ hit store shelves on April 12, 2022

Buy And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin from Macmillan, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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