I picked this one up over two years ago, having no idea about the premise other than it seemed to be something that everyone was enjoying. The horror genre is not one that I naturally gravitate towards, but having enjoyed The Passage and being drawn to the bright yellow of the cover, I thought it was worth trying. Then I got completely sidetracked, even managing to read M.R. Carey’s second novel Fellside without ever coming back to it. It was only when this was the only film at the cinema which none of my group of friends had seen that I actually found out what on earth it was actually about. Sitting watching the big screen, I was riveted and I knew that I needed to read the book – and soon. So here we are.
With the first line of the novel, we are introduced to Melanie, a child and the heart of the novel – she is the girl who has all the gifts. Straight away, Melanie’s situation is notably unusual, with a side-note that she did not pick her name, but rather Miss Justineau did. She knows she has not been in this place forever, but she can’t really remember where she was before. On the surface, she follows a recognisable routine – gets up, goes to school, she likes reading. But she has to be strapped into a chair whenever she goes anywhere, her every movement is monitored by guards with guns who are obviously terrified of her and it is soon clear that her classes are simply a battery of tests to monitor her reactions and those of the other children.
The children do not know what they are, why they are so feared but over time, heavy hints are dropped. The belligerent man in command of the base, Sergeant Parks, refers to them as ‘frigging abortions’ and when he bares the flesh of his arm in front of Melanie’s classmate Kenny in a bit to prove to Miss Justineau that the child is dangerous, Kenny snaps and tries to bite. Also in charge is Caroline Caldwell, the scientist, who occasionally takes children away and never returns them. Far away is the colony of Beacon, but the reader can see, just as the children cannot, that they will never go there. The facts of the outbreak are never made explicit, but the fall of humanity and the rise of the hungries – zombies – gradually becomes apparent. With most of the nation infected, the survivors huddle in Beacon, but here on the base there are twenty children who have imbibed the hungry virus but still retain the ability to think and reason and nobody understands why. This is not a school, but rather a research station and these are not teachers, they are scientists and the children have the power to kill.
Melanie’s favourite adult is Miss Justineau, the only member of staff who appears to treat the children as individuals rather than deadly predators. It is Miss Justineau who teaches the class about Greek myths, who tells them stories, who seems to be sad about the way they are living. In the film, she was played by Gemma Arterton, a move that many held to be an example of white-washing, since the original character is a middle-aged black woman. While I would hate to disparage Arterton’s performance, the choice of a younger actor did strip away a great deal of the character’s complexity, particularly her pre-outbreak back-story which made the conclusion far more satisfying but most of all, the parental bond which she forms with Melanie is lost. Onscreen, the child Melanie is on the brink of adolescence so that her attachment to Miss Justineau seems more of a crush, while in the original, it is far clearer that she is reaching out for a parent.
The Girl With All The Gifts is a novel which proves that there is life in the zombie genre yet. Carey explores the ethics of the post-apocalyptic world – Caroline Caldwell is desperate to find a cure for the hungry pathogen, ruthlessly driven and single-minded in her purpose, to the point where scruples have become a distant memory. Helen Justineau is horrified to discover that children’s brains are being cut open and without anaesthetic – but she has dark secrets in her own past. The question of precisely who is morally superior is not black and white – what role does Helen’s compassion have to play in a world run so wild? Is Caroline’s commitment truly so abhorrent?
I was reminded of Never Let Me Go at a few points in this novel – it shares the same slightly unearthly quality, as well as us receiving an orientation within this world from a character to whom it all seems entirely natural. There is also the same slightly uncomfortable question around education. As with Kazuo Ishiguro’s clone characters, Melanie has been raised as an object to be feared, but filled with tales of heroic legends and noble warriors. By contrast, the young soldier Kieran grew up in Beacon, taught little and having to fight for survival. What does it even mean to be ‘civilised’? Kieran perhaps was not, but Melanie the ‘frigging abortion’ was ironically brought up with the vanished values of the pre-outbreak society, even though her very existence inspires terror in other humans. Melanie is more intelligent than Kieran and has a keener sense of justice – but for all that, has she truly been equipped for survival? The novel ends with a heavy question mark over which values are most useful to carry forward.
The set-pieces within the novel are very striking, particularly once the characters have left the base. Visiting the fallen cities, Carey maps out this collapsed world adeptly and it is no surprise that someone snapped up the film rights. Carey’s idea of how the hungries will be dormant when not hunting is especially effective, with the characters walking carefully through them while wearing their blocker gel – the tension is incredible. As with When The Floods Came, it feels as though there is more to explore within this imagined universe. While the plot leaves little scope for a sequel, I found myself inwardly considering Carey’s creation for a good few days afterwards. While I am aware that his follow-up work Fellside has garnered less praise – most likely because its central protagonist Jess is not as appealing as Melanie – I was struck by the similarities between the two books, namely that same focus on imprisonment and morality. Fellside is a prison where the guards are just as corrupt as the criminals they seek to detain and here Caroline Caldwell does not make a convincing case that humanity is worth keeping.
Melanie is a remarkable heroine – in managing to take a ten year-old with a genius level IQ and make her truly interesting, Carey has achieved something remarkable. Justineau is determined that the child survive, Caldwill is convinced that she holds the key to curing the pathogen and then Melanie just may be able to change Parks’ mind about hungries. But she is also a little girl, who is excited about getting new clothes, who likes to explore and who wants somebody to love her. For my first ever zombie novel, it certainly had a great deal of heart – but in common with every zombie story which I have ever heard, there is no possible happy ending.
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