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girl with all the giftsThe Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey
Orbit 2014
Large Format Paperback
403 pages
Speculative Fiction; Apocalyptic Fiction; Horror; Science Fiction

Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie’s favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.

Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She’s a fully cognisant zombie – or “hungry”, as they’re called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect – and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she’s brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she’s able to control her hunger.

While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it’s been since the Breakdown – there are men on Parks’ team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.

When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.

The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called “Iphigenia in Aulis” which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it – you can really see it as a film). MR Carey – who usually writes as Mike Carey – writes for DC and Marvel (he’s the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he’s good at, and in his new novel those strengths – of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes – really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn’t add anything to the narrative, but it wasn’t too distracting.

On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and – especially in the first part – that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro’s creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief – their need to believe – that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn’t do what they do to them – not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.

I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of zombie stories; I’ve read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can’t win against zombies. If you survive, it’s only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn’t your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we’re willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.

We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her – things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she’s also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn’t hard to see where the genius of Carey’s creation lies: I can’t think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don’t think we could bear to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that’s just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin’s The Passage (I’ve read that Carey hadn’t read Cronin’s books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.

The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn’t a very long time, but it’s long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they’re still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There’s a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she’s become the Mad Scientist character.

So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They’re trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are … well, they’re a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They’re the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.

But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who’d obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.

Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn’t keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let’s take a good long look at him/her/it.

And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they’re running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What’s the deal? [pp.70-71]

Visually, it’s very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It’s not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries’ (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans – and only humans – have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they’ve got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It’s just something that bugs me while I’m reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.

I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful.


Other Reviews:

“…Carey’s apocalypse scenario is one of the best I’ve ever read. He takes our traditional understanding of the zombie myth, turns it upside down, cuts it all up and reassembles it. It is stunningly cool, highly original and quite frightening. In The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey shows us that the end of the world as we know it does not mean that it is the end of the world as a whole – and maybe we should just accept it.” The Novelettes

“I can’t help but applaud Mike Carey for adding a spark to a topic that I was becoming bored of. And it isn’t just his ideas that I applaud, but also his skill with characters, as each of them feels solid and believable. I began to fear for their safety, even Melanie who shows that she is safest in this apocalyptic world. If you have even a passing interest in the idea of reanimated corpses, this is a must read.” Utter Biblio

“What a book to kick off 2014! This book totally blew me away from the first page.” Bite the Book

“If you’re a little wary of genre fiction, and don’t really like to touch sci-fi/fantasy, I urge you to give The Girl With All the Gifts a go. You’ll soon forget it’s about zombies (that word isn’t used) and instead you’ll just find yourself caught up in a brilliant story.” Girl!Reporter

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