The Girl with all the Gifts by M R Carey
I’m always rather thrilled when something rather geeky breaks into the mainstream. Sure, some people hate it, feeling their beloved hobby is under assault, but I like the genres I love being exposed to a wider audience. The Girl with all the Gifts is a zombie novel which has done very well as ‘literature’. As with all the best zombie stories, it’s not really about zombies, exploring the age old theme of what it means to be human in new and exciting ways.
Every morning, the young girl Melanie is strapped to a gurney and a muzzle is placed over her mouth. She is wheeled into a classroom where she is taught about the world that came before the world was overrun by the ‘hungries.’ Her favourite teacher is Ms Justineau but her least favourite person is Sergeant Parks, who seems to have an irrational hate of her. At the head of this camp not far north of London is Doctor Caldwell, who seeks above all else to solve the mystery of the fungus which has turned almost all of humanity into monsters.
I don’t want to give away much, but I will say that The Girl with all the Gifts does some really interesting things with the zombie concept. The opening parts of the book are probably the strongest simply by how strange and unique feeling they are. As things go on, they get a little bit closer to the standard post-apocalyptic zombie tropes but that’s not to say those parts aren’t entertaining. Even when it does begin to more closely resemble classic zombie stories it’s a very good zombie story. Also, it’s set around Hertfordshire which is where I’m from, so that’s an utterly un-objective point in its favour for me.
I haven’t encountered Carey before, but I’ll be looking out for him in the future. His writing is unflashy but effective, with the moments of tension and fear necessary to a good zombie story being truly painful. He does a really good job of jumping in and out of other characters heads, with the individual natures of each character coming through very nicely in their narration.
Melanie is a heartbreaking and lovable protagonist, with a genius IQ and a dawning awareness of what she is. Her hero worship/crush on Ms Justineau is really touching, with their relationship forming the emotional core of the story. Justineau herself could have been a bland paragon figure, but she ends up as a rounded character with her own flaws and quirks independent of her relationship with Melanie. Sergeant Parks could have been a generically antagonising figure, but he emerges fully formed and sympathetic, a pragmatic man who has built his rigid world view as a self defence mechanism. Yes, the main cast do fall into archetypes, but Carey uses these to undermine your expectations in interesting ways.
The Girl with all the Gifts doesn’t quite top World War Z as my favourite zombie book, but it comes a close second. Actually, it’s not a fair comparison, because despite being about zombies they’re not trying to achieve the same thing at all. The Girl with all the Gifts is a moving, if fairly lightweight book and one I’d recommend to anyone, genre fans or not.