Review: The Boy on the Bridge, M.R. Carey

Like most people, I finished The Girl With All The Gifts with the feeling that there was more to explore.  Now it seems that M.R. Carey has decided the same, with The Boy On The Bridge offering a side-long prequel (or ‘sidequel’ as the press release would have it) and a return to the world of the hungries.  Carey picks up the action with the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, the big armoured van which the characters in the original book found abandoned.  Knowing this, and given Melanie’s actions at the end of the book, I settled down to the story with a certain amount of trepidation – did I really want to get attached to a set of characters who seemed quite so obviously doomed?  Still, while The Boy is more of a companion piece to The Girl rather than its equal, it does offer a sense of closure to the story – just maybe one for the completists.

The Rosalind Franklin research vessel was loaded up with the best scientific minds of Beacon (though not Caroline Caldwell much to her chagrin and more on that later) and sent out to face the hungries in the hopes of finding a cure.  With an even split between the science and military personnel, Carey has loaded himself up with a far bigger cast than in The Girl With All The Gifts.  Also unlike that novel, it is not instantly obvious who the protagonist is.  Samrina Khan is the first character we connect with, as she and a few of the soldiers loot an abandoned branch of Boots, but along with the commonplace medical supplies, Dr Khan is looking for something else and while her escort is distracted, she swipes a home pregnancy test.  Miles out of Beacon and in the midst of hostile territory, Dr Khan is knocked up.

From here, the narrative flashes forward seven months – seven months in a cramped battle bus, stuck with a mission for which few hold out any real hope.  The military leader is Colonel Carlisle, also known as The Fireman since he was carried out the fire raids over the Home Counties which some had foolishly hoped might stop the hungry plague but which most have since acknowledged did little more than slaughter innocent people.  Yet while Carlisle may have a dark history, he shows himself to be an honourable man who has a strong faith in the military set up and who was carrying out orders which he felt unable to disobey.  By contrast, the civilian commander is Dr Fournier, a devious little man who knows more than he is telling and who has beaten his rival Caroline Caldwell to this position by dodgy dealing.  Needless to say, these two men’s warring approaches do not encourage smooth progress.

Yet beyond all this is Stephen Greaves, protegé of Dr Khan, probably autistic or else simply traumatised at having witnessed his parents being eaten by hungries whilst he was a small child.  Now aged fifteen, it is supposedly he who developed the e-blocker gel which allows the humans to walk past the hungries unnoticed.  His fellow crew members call him the Robot and only Dr Khan has any kind of faith in his abilities – he is only on the mission roster at her insistence.  Indeed, given how heartbroken Caroline Caldwell was in the previous book not to have been included, it seems odd that getting someone a place on the mission was so apparently easy.  He is however the Boy on the Bridge and while I never took to him as I did to Melanie, he was an interesting depiction of how a socially anxious person functioning on the autism spectrum might cope in such pressured circumstances.  Carey does always bring an imaginative perspective to the zombie story.

Stephen has a penchant for breaking loose of the confines of Rosie and going for walks to observe the local hungries.  It is on these travels he spots a strange girl with a scarred face – she moves like a hungry and is ignored by them almost as if she were one of them but she seems to observe and to reason more like a human.  The reader knows what is going on here straight away but we have to remember that this is taking place at least ten years before the events of The Girl With All The Gifts – the ever logical Stephen is left in a state of confusion and disarray.  What is going on here?  Should he tell the others?  Is the red-headed girl with the scarred face to be their friend or their foe?  The problem with Stephen is that he cannot explain what he thinks, only the facts that he knows.  So he remains silent.

There is always an issue about including wunderkind in a narrative and it is to Carey’s credit that he has now managed to do so in two separate books and carried it off successfully.  Stephen could easily have been an irritating Wesley Crusher figure – the boy-genius-whizz-kid – but yet his communication difficulties mean that we can believe that he will not find it possible to approach any of his fellow crew members, even when it becomes agonisingly clear that he ought to.  Stephen is an interesting mirror to Girl‘s Melanie – he is her opposite in so many ways, quiet where she is talkative, distant where she was affectionate and dispassionately logical where she was drawn to mythological tales of nobility and heroism.  Yet both novels see both characters reach the identical conclusion about the fate of humanity.

As Rosie continues her lumbering patrol of the United Kingdom, we watch as the crew gradually come to realise the danger they are in.  While certain characters do have Cannon Fodder stamped on their foreheads in rather large letters – it’s no spoiler to disclose that I am astonished that Penny lasted as long as she did – Carey does an excellent job in making the reader invest in their fate without ever giving us any reason to believe that they will survive.  The volatile and trigger-happy Lieutenant Daniel McQueen, Foss, the rodent-like Fournier and big-hearted Carlisle – their bickering and back-and-forth was often petty and the political engineering could seem ludicrous in the face of what they were actually up against but wasn’t that Melanie and Stephen’s point?

As before, I found the level of detail to be fantastic – during one of the observation trips, they notice that most of the hungries are wearing the same overalls and conclude that these were all workers at the local factory who had been infected while on shift.  The random objects which the child-hungries used as weapons or talismans were also fascinating, with the face-offs between them and Rosie’s crew being magnificent set pieces.  I cannot really see The Boy getting its own film adaptation but Carey certainly writes with an eye for the visual.  Finty Williams’ narration adds a resonance to the story – in high drama, she breathes tension, in low moments she sighs sorrow.  Williams captures Stephen’s querulousness, Fournier’s mixture of sycophancy and deceit and then the additional layers of tragedy to Khan.   And as she spoke the words of the finale, I felt tearful.

To be honest, Boy would have been a worthwhile read for me for that magnificent finale alone.  There is a definite feeling of the circle closing.  I am a little divided over whether Boy weakens some of the impact of Girl – when you finish a novel with someone (spoilers) wiping out humanity, returning to the fray feels risky.  Yet I did care about the characters, especially the Fireman, which implies that Carey’s novel had achieved its purpose.  The final confrontation between Carlisle and Fournier felt like a conversation between good and evil and Boy continued to probe at the questions first posed by Girl – which values are worth clinging on to?  What is not worth sacrificing even if it means our survival?  Does humanity have a monopoly on honour?  What does it even mean to be human?  I can see how there might be more room for Carey to return here again but yet I find myself hoping that he will not, to let that last image of Rosie riding again be the one that takes us out.  No matter the depth to which Carey’s novels take us, his ultimate message is always one of love.

 

four-stars
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The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey
Published by Hachette UK on May 4th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, General
Pages: 400
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780356503554


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