Melanie is ten years old, with skin as white as snow, just like in the fairy tale. But she doesn’t live in a tower; she lives in a cell, and is taken from there through the corridor to the classroom, and the shower room, where she is fed grubs once a week before a chemical spray falls from the ceiling. She knows that the place she lives in is called the block, and that the block is on the base, which is called Hotel Echo. They’re close to London and part of Region 6, which is mostly clear because the burn patrols kill the hungries. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, who makes school days interesting and full of fun.
We quickly learn that the hungries are zombies — and at that point, I groaned; not another zombie novel! Haven’t we worn out this meme yet? But M.R. Carey has some tricks up his sleeve in The Girl with All the Gifts. He springs the first one on us almost immediately, for it becomes plain that Melanie is herself a zombie, but a different sort from the hungries; she has a fully functional brain, as do the other children who are wheeled into the classroom each day, bound hand, foot and neck to wheelchairs. Because the story is initially told from Melanie’s viewpoint, though in the third person, we don’t know why Melanie and her classmates are different from the mindless eating machines that have destroyed civilization.
We learn why the zombie children are being taught when the Sergeant, the man in charge of security for Hotel Echo, questions why Miss Justineau is reading them a story. Miss Justineau says that it’s important to see how they process information, so that she has to give them a source of ideas. The Sergeant doubts that Winnie the Pooh will do anything for the kids, whom he clearly despises; he goes so far as to deny that they are children at all. He objects to Miss Justineau treating them like “real kids,” because that sort of thinking will one day cause her to slip up. He feels obliged to give her a demonstration, one that squeezes the heart of anyone who has started to feel for these children — and, because of the lovely way Carey writes about them, by this time we all do.
We get more of an idea why the children are housed and taught instead of being disposed of. It’s not compassion for the fact that these children have human intelligence and human feelings; it’s because Doctor Caldwell needs them as raw material for her tests. Caldwell is trying to figure out what causes people to become zombies, and the children are her test subjects. It is quickly apparent that Caldwell is willing to take extreme steps to find out what is going on in their brains; she believes she is close to a breakthrough, and that is all that is important to her. She is cold and impersonal and never seems to consider for a moment that there are real people inside the bodies she is so eager to carve up. In fact, it’s her opinion that death takes place the moment one becomes infected with the pathogen that causes one to become a zombie; all that is left is the parasite.
Carey carefully sets up his world and introduces us to his characters; then he introduces chaos. The world is an unfriendly place; and even this little part of the world has its factions. Put them all on the road, and the plot starts to zoom. Even better, we learn more about the science on which Carey bases his zombies, and about the fungal matter that populates their blood and tissues. I particularly enjoyed this part of the book, which brings it into the realm of science fiction from the land of horror — but which somehow makes it all the more frightening.
Carey’s characters are carefully and fully drawn, with nuance. Even his bad guys have good points, and his good guys can be horrifically dangerous. And I will never forget the shocking way this book ends; it takes my breath away to think of it.
I still don’t want to read any more about zombies. I’m still sick of them. But Carey made me forget my antipathy with strong characters and interesting science. Carey shows us that, in the hands of a gifted writer, even a worn-out meme can have power.
The Girl With All the Gifts: The gnarly undead, in a good way
Melanie is just like any other normal little girl. She goes to school, loves books, has friends and hates being bored. Then there’s the slightly, erm, more unusual parts: her only source of food is a bowlful of maggots once a week; when she’s not locked in her cell, she’s strapped to a wheelchair by her ankles, wrists and neck; and she’s occasionally muzzled…
Melanie lives on an army base where other children like her are taught in classes to measure their psychological development and eventually be tested on. What makes Melanie’s existence worthwhile is one of her teachers, Miss Justineau, who introduces her to the heroes of Greek myth, sings songs to her in class and doesn’t treat Melanie like all the other staff. Unlike Sergeant Parks, commander of the army base who won’t come near her unless he’s got a gun aimed at her head. Or Doctor Caroline Caldwell who wants to open up Melanie’s skull with a machine that will slice a brain up to fifty times within a millimetre. The reason why? Melanie is a zombie.
So far, so zombie. But The Girl With All the Gifts is quite unique in the telling of a zombie tale that focuses exclusively on a very small group of people. When rebel humans attack the army base by herding a massive crowd of zombies at the remaining humans (and that is zombies of the mindless drooling variety, not the intelligent, sentient types like Melanie), Sergeant Parks, Doctor Caldwell, a young private named Gallagher, Miss Justineau and Melanie herself might be the only survivors from the attack. The story focuses on their plight as they try to reach Beacon — the only known settlement of humans remaining.
The novel’s strongest asset is the relationship it portrays between Miss Justineau and Melanie, which is not only original but highly compelling. What begins as a teacher and her pupil soon turns into something of a mother-daughter bond — think Matilda and Miss Honey, but with the undead. There are no love triangles here, no macho men trying to win a damsel in distress. Melanie absolutely idolises Miss Justineau, and it soon becomes apparent that Miss Justineau has dark secrets of her own that make the relationship with the young girl so important to her.
The other focal point of the novel is Melanie’s personal growth as the truth of her own existence gradually dawns on her. She’s never been told she’s a zombie. She’s always assumed she’s just like the other kids she’s learned about in her history classes and read about in the books she’s read. Watching her make the connection between herself and the drooling flesh-eaters that Miss Justineau is in danger of being eaten by is both horrifying and tragic. It’s this focus on the personal, on the individual, that sets the novel apart from an overcrowded genre.
So, whilst zombies don’t usually do it for me, The Girl With All the Gifts is definitely worth a read. Sci-fi fans will love the detailed medical explanations of the zombie gene and horror fans will love all the grisly stuff that goes with it.