(2014) M. R. Carey, Orbit, £16.99, pbk, 461pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50723-1
The startling opening to The Girl With All The Gifts reminds me of the horrors of getting up for school on days when I didn’t want to go. Alarms going off, people shouting at me to hurry, armed soldiers rushing to the bedroom to chain me into a wheelchair, ready for class. OK, the last bit didn’t happen to me, but it does happen to Melanie, every day, except feeding day, when she is literally fed a bowl of living squirming grubs – her only meal of the week.
It is soon clear that this is not a dystopian future torture for innocent children, and that Melanie is in some way extremely different, and potentially dangerous. She is intelligent, and she has a crush on her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau, as does the gruff army sergeant, Parks. Everyone, including the teacher, is afraid to get too close to Melanie though, especially her teeth. She wears a Hannibal Lector style mouth-guard whenever she is in company.
Science class is bad though, as the biology teacher there, Dr Caldwell, is into vivisection, but she slices up the children rather than letting them slice up frogs, and Melanie is next on her list. Only Miss Justineau seems to be seriously fighting to keep her away from Caldwell’s clutches.
The story is totally character driven. We are led to care about everyone, including Caldwell, who is far from being an outright villain in her fanatical arrogant drive to be the one who saves humanity.
Home time – back to her cell, in a maximum security bunkered army base – Grange Hill this is not.
There are lots of zombies afoot, referred to throughout the book as Hungries, but are they really shuffling corpses, devoid of intellect. They seem like extras from The Walking Dead, not like Melanie at all, but we may be making assumptions here based on too much 28 Days Later and George Romero.
Then there are the Junkers, humans who do anything to survive, loot, kill, scavenge, and attack the establishment bases that might actually cure the Hungries. . If anything, the living Junkers seem more mindless and destructive than the Hungries.
This is unfortunate because Caldwell feels very close to a solution, and a Nobel Prize if she can just cut into Melanie, so when a Junkers attack plunges Melanie, Parks, Justineau, and Caldwell out of their safe base and into a dangerous road trip through the southern counties and Greater London, some serious lessons are going to be learned and not just by Melanie; she got her first taste of human flesh during the initial escape. That she avoids becoming a rampaging flesh-eating marauder says a lot about her and the Hungries. They are not perpetual eating machines. Melanie knows that she only needs to eat enough to feel full, just as a human takes a break between each of his or her three meals a day. Other Hungries just stand around in static poses until they hear noises or smell the living. Then they move in quickly and relentlessly.
The only other fully developed character in the little central survival group is Gallagher, a squaddie serving under Parks, a squaddie with suppressed pædοphile notions who wonders if it is worth following orders any more n a world gone mad.
The relationship changes for the survivors are beautifully controlled. Everyone has secrets, and each time the story centres on them, we see events from their point of view and in their mind-set. Parks is a soldier struggling with duty, unused to civilians answering him back and questioning his command. He swears a lot. Caldwell sees things coldly, scientifically, but with some sense of wonder. Justineau struggles to see Melanie as a precocious child genius, not a monster on a harness to keep her at a safe distance. She fails to grasp just how Melanie has interpreted the Pandora myth that gives the book its title though, which leads to a jaw-dropping resolution in the closing chapter.
Melanie sees the adults as knowing what is best for her and does her best to help them rather than trying to escape or feed off them. She has many opportunities to escape but never uses them, as she is developing rather a different agenda as she matures.
The contagion itself is not full on zombification, and its development as a fungal infection, with no specified human, natural or alien origin is carefully presented. This becomes as much science fiction as horror. Later, the wild Hungries are seen collapsing, as they sprout out in flowering trees – the end or a deadly new beginning. It will change Melanie’s thinking radically, as will another crucial life-threatening discovery she makes.
Caldwell thinks she can still figure it out, especially if she can access a science lab and get inside Melanie’s head.
As to Melanie, she thinks that having fled the school she is the only intelligent Hungry left alive, but is she? What if she meets and communicates with more of her own kind? Which way will her loyalties go?
The characters seem bound and almost brainwashed by their education, regrets, upbringings, training and sense of duty. Parks and Gallagher are used to giving and receiving orders, but in a world turned upside down and civilians with ideas of their own, what can they do? Justineau is a teacher, a guardian of the young, but her only charge may be a cannibalistic monster. Caldwell is fanatical to her scientific duty and a hair’s breadth from solving the whole problem, but she needs to cut up a living child to be sure so her ethical priorities make her the greatest threat of all.
Melanie sees herself as the new Pandora, carrying all the horrors and also the only hope, but hope for who and what? Is her intelligence making her more human or potentially more monstrous? The ambiguity of her thinking, and even her ever abiding crush-fixation on her favourite teacher takes on a whole new meaning in the closing chapters.
This is more akin to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the novel, not the film and its precursors) than The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later. A true masterpiece, now filmed with a screenplay by Carey himself.
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