The Girl With All The Gifts
-Book Reviewed by Jemma Beggs–
Rarely has an author used the writer’s golden rule of “Show, don’t tell” to such dazzling effect as M.R.Carey, in his sublime novel, The Girl with All the Gifts. Set in a dystopian future, a fungal infection has ravaged the majority of humanity. When the fungus hits, humans transform into near-invincible flesh-eating machines called “hungries.” Readers are on a treacherous journey. A group of survivors and a young girl named Melanie—the “girl with all the gifts” must venture through a rapidly unravelling, and strange universe.
Narratives that switch perspectives from chapter to chapter often frustrate readers, however, M.R. Carey has used the device expertly, telling his tale through the eyes of multiple characters. In this way, he exposes the raw thoughts and emotions of a community on edge. Principally, we see the world through the eyes of Melanie, a little girl who is unaware that she is actually a “hungry.” In this way, we get to view things from a unique perspective as Melanie has never seen the outside world before and knows nothing of pre-apocalyptic life, so everything is a wonder to her. Gifted with a genius IQ and the best traits of both humans and hungries, Melanie is perfectly placed to help find a cure to this deadly infection.
Whilst her mind may be far superior for a girl of her age, at heart Melanie is an insecure child desperate to be loved by her teacher, Miss Justineau. She adores Miss Justineau and believes that “there can’t be anyone better or kinder or lovelier… anywhere in the world.” Miss Justineau is the only teacher who treats Melanie as a child rather than a monster. Melanie hardly comprehends her teacher’s reasons, nevertheless, she responds to the attention and kindness with adulation, conveying her strong desire to protect Miss Justineau; who makes her feel “like the most important person in the world.” For her part, Miss Justineau develops an affection for Melanie despite the dangers of such a relationship, risking her life on more than one occasion to protect her from harm.
A participant in an experimental operation to learn more about the minds of hungries, Helen Justineau is a damaged yet headstrong woman. She battles the demons of her past and present while constantly hiding from the morality of her actions. She is in constant conflict with head scientist Caroline Caldwell—a cold-hearted and obsessive doctor, only content when she is busy extracting brains from live hungries. Leading the group is the decisive Sargent Ed Parks, who bears responsibility for keeping the group alive. Parks is aided by the young and inexperienced Private Kierran Gallagher.
Each character is fully developed, enhancing the setting and the group dynamic. There are no clichéd heroes or villains in this drama, and the author so brilliantly describes the English landscape that apocalypse fearing Britains are wary of the plot. Could something like this really transpire? Thankfully, despite the book’s aspects of familiarity, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ couldn’t be described as anything other than original. This is far more than your run of the mill zombie apocalypse novel. The virus that infects the hungries is rooted in scientific fact with a sinister twist plausible enough to be truly terrifying.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is an actual fungus which infects a specific species of ant, attacking the nervous systems and altering their behavioural patterns. The fungus explodes through the head of the insect – “a phallic sporangium skull-fucking the dying insect from the inside” and shedding thousands of spores which rapidly spread when the insect dies. Known as a ‘zombie fungus,’ M.R.Carey takes this gruesome infection and allows it to “claw its way to the top of the evolutionary tree.” His Hungries are chilling in the extreme. They exist completely immobile until jolted awake by sudden movement, loud noises, body heat or the scent of human flesh. They will then run indefinitely at an unrelenting pace until they catch their prey. Immune to pain and sprouting grey spores from their often rotting bodies, these beasts are everyone’s worst nightmare.
Readers will be terrified when the group of non-infected humans are forced to wander through cities in search of shelter at night. Sergeant Parks’s instructions are clear: “We’re almost bound to see hungries, and to be in their line of sight. What you want to do is not trigger them. Move slowly and smoothly. Don’t look them directly in the eye. Don’t make any loud or sudden noises. As far as you can, you blend into the landscape.” Covered in E-Blocker, a chemical designed to mask human smell from the hungries, the group is able to walk straight past these monsters without alerting them, so long as they keep their movements slow and remain silent. Following the humans into this heart of darkness, knowing at any second one wrong move could signal a doomed chase, sends chills down the spine.
As the novel proceeds, the horror only increases. The group encounters hungries who have retained tiny characteristics of their former humanity. An infected woman pushes a pram containing a skeleton of a baby down a deserted street and a rotting man rocks in his bed, singing the name of a long lost loved one. These haunting glimpses reveal depths of character residing in the monsters. They are still tenuously linked to humanity. Both fear and pity punctuate the prose.
“Which weighs the most Helen? Which will do the most good in the end? Your compassion or my commitment to my work?” Dr. Caldwell demands of Miss Justineau in one climactic scene. Fear of mortality drives this daunting plot, prompting the questions: can humans still be referred to as such when they’ve lost their humanity, and what atrocities are justified in the name of knowledge? With its powerful characterisation, terrifying monsters and a chillingly convincing theory for the future of the human race, this is one zombie apocalypse thriller that truly sinks its teeth in.
Post Photo Courtesy of: en.wikipedia.org