Melanie, according to the invitingly brief dust jacket blurb of The Girl With All the Gifts (based on the Edgar Award-nominated short story Iphigenia in Aulis), “is a very special girl”.
And the novel of which she is the moral and emotional core, is extraordinary too, a highly original take on the zombie apocalypse, of which you might think there is not much left to say.
Most occupants of this genre followed a fairly well worn path – a contagion breaks out, the majority of humanity are reduced to rage-filled living nightmares, or the re-animated deceased, and as civilisation crumbles into an orgy of Darwinian survival of the fittest and Mad Max opportunism, the plucky and desperate remnants of what was once the human once do their best to avoid annihilation.
And to be fair there are elements of all of these things in The Girl With All the Gifts, so named because of Pandora of Greek myth, she of the overly curious nature and a box full of the sensibly-imprisoned evils, which graphically paints a picture of a world largely leached bare of all the things we know and love.
“The infection was still spreading, and global capitalism was still tearing itself apart – like the two giants eating each other in the Dalí paining called Autumn Cannibalism. No amount of expertly choreographed PR could prevail, in the end, against Armageddon. It strolled over the barricade and took its pleasure.” (p. 48)
Hungries, as the zombies are rather prosaically referred to by the survivors, swarm though the cities, and to a lesser extent the more sparsely populated countryside, Junkers, surviving feral humans who are reduced to a brutally paternalistic life of basic survival and little else prey on the weak and inattentive, while the rump of civilised humanity have barricaded themselves in walled, totalitarian enclaves, doing their best to keep the flame of self-aware humanity burning.
It is a bleak, almost hopeless existence, life circumscribed at all times by the need to simply survive with very little chance of actually enjoying life save for isolated moments here or there, a siege mentality the order of very long and anxiety-filled days.
What sets M. R. Carey’s novel apart from the undead pack – the author’s name is a pseudonym “for an established British writer of prose fiction and comic books” – is the attention it pays to the characters that fills its pages and its steely-eyed focus on the many and varied ways they react to a world they no longer recognise or feel comfortable in.
Each of the four principal characters are beautifully fleshed out, no pun intended, given fully-realised three dimensional distinctive personas and the chance to express them over the course of the novel, a thriller with no real promise of a happy ending.
Quite what the ending is, obviously, I cannot say except to say that it is heartbreakingly poignant and necessary, but so well brought forth are the main characters that and so deeply invested in their precarious fate are you that you almost wish you could put off the inevitable in perpetuity.
“Yesterday she thought that the hungries were like houses that people used to live in. Now she thinks that every one of those houses is haunted. She’s not just surrounded by the hungries. She’s surrounded by the ghosts of the men and women they used to be.” (Melanie, p. 234)
Melanie, the protagonist and epicentre of the story, is to all appearances a bright, happy and extremely intelligent blond-haired 10 year old girl, armed with a voracious appetite for Greek myth, of which she is a obsessive fan, and knowledge of all kinds.
But unlike pretty much all other 10 year olds, she spends much of her days and nights confined to a windowless cell underground, her arms and lengths strapped down, everyone steering a wide berth around her because despite her protestations that she won’t bite, there is ever life-ending chance that she will.
For Melanie, all humanity aside, is a Hungry, driven into insatiable lust for flesh whenever she sniffs the unmasked pheromones of those foolish enough not to slather themselves in the vital E-blocker which masks all traceable odours of humanity and is a vital part of any survivor’s toolkit in the apocalyptic age.
The only person unperturbed by this, some misgivings aside, is her adored Miss Justineau, a clinical psychologist drafted in by the fearsomely dedicated researcher Caroline Caldwell, as a teacher in a bid to see what the act of learning does to the still higher-unfctioning brains of Melanie and the incarcerated children like her.
A particularly close bond develops between Melanie and her much-loved teacher, and soon the intriguingly abnormal young girl, who glories in learning about now useless knowledge like the population of Manchester, who over time come to fill needs in the other to parent and be parented.
Of course Caroline Caldwell, consumed with her appointed role of finding a cure for the fungus-based plague, and Sergeant Parks, who oversees the security of the base they occupy far out in the English countryside (far from the haven of Beacon, south of London, where rump humanity clings on), see Melanie purely as a test subject and an insidious threat respectively.
It is only when events force them to depend far more closely on each other than previously, that they discover the true extent of Melanie’s nascent humanity and gaping deficiencies in their own.
Thus The Girl With All the Gifts is less about the cataclysmic downfall of civilisation, although that is addressed in chillingly evocative detail, and more about what it really means to be human, especially in an age when all trace of that concept are growing more nebulous and uncertain by the second.
“But she [Melanie] doubts now that the princes she once imagined fighting for her exist anywhere in this world, which is so beautiful but so full of old and broken things. And she already misses Muss J, even though they’re still together.”
She doesn’t think she’ll ever love anyone else quite this much.” (p. 257)
This dissection of the nature of Homo Sapiens sentience, and its often flawed expression, is distilled into the touching, mutually rewarding relationship between Miss Justineau, and the young genius Melanie, and forms the core of what is that rare creature indeed – a novel that is both a part of, and a radical departure from the genre to which it belongs.
And in so doing, it draws you into caring for this highly unusual young girl, who though heartbreakingly aware what she is, is nonetheless consumed and delight by everything around her, including most of all, her adored and much loved Miss J.
While every bit a thriller, with the sort of shocks, scares and impossible to escape situations that make The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later such compelling viewing, The Girl With All the Gifts is at its heart the profoundly moving, and thought-provoking tale of one young thoroughly different girl who simply wants to be loved, and the woman who overcomes a myriad of fears, to give her that love.
It is never mawkish or overly-sentimental – its setting puts paid to any temptation to render the relationship in those terms very early on – always staying true to the idea that humanity could survive the apocalypse, just not in the way we imagined.