Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Treading lightly with this review since I don't want to spoil this story for anyone. That being stated, I think it's safe to "reveal" that the girl with all the gifts is a zombie.
While this story predominantly features this girl, it belongs to all of humanity. Carey poses the question What does it mean to be human? I would compare the central themes to those in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. (And I do mean the story and not the terrible movie version that missed the entire meaning behind the title.)
The exposition sets up the post-Breakdown world where a zombie infection has decimated the population. Melanie, a zombie child, attends school on an army base thirty miles north of London. Sergeant Parks and his soldiers maintain security protocols so that Melanie and other zombie children may attend classes strapped into wheelchairs. There are several teachers to cover a variety of subjects. Miss Helen Justineau, an English teacher of sorts, is Melanie's favorite. These educators report to Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a mediocre but ambitious scientist.
Melanie adores the Greek myths and her favorite character is Pandora. Miss Justineau explains Pandora as a "really amazing woman. All the gods had blessed her and given her gifts. That's what her name means - 'the girl with all the gifts'. So she was clever, and brave, and beautiful, and funny, and everything else you'd want to be. But she just had the one tiny fault, which was that she was very - and I mean very - curious." Melanie can relate easily to Pandora because she too is curious about her world and who she is. As she realizes what she is, I became more and more impressed with this zombie character.
In less than 100 pages, Carey establishes the characters and activities on this experimental military base where these captured zombie children have varying degrees of cognitive function. They speak. They think. They learn. They're quite the differentiated classroom! And just as Carey begins to scratch the scientific surface of how Caldwell is searching for a cure, everything goes wrong.
And here's where I need to get much much vaguer; otherwise, I will spoil the goodness of this atypical zombie story.
Something happens on the military base and the story hones in on Melanie, Justineau, Caldwell, Parks and a soldier named Kieran Gallagher. Characters who had seemed like stereotypes evolve into three-dimensional beings who are trying to survive. Each of these characters has their own version of a Pandora's box to open or release or break. The verb each character might choose relies greatly on how that character perceives change.
The remaining story centers around these five characters working together to survive. And the threats against them are layered. There are the hungries, Carey's term for the zombies. Then there are other hungry children like Melanie, except these are feral. Finally, there are the junkers, survivors who have turned all Lord of the Flies. I actually kept imagining creatures similar to Reavers from Firefly. So, this book has some fast-paced action scenes as well!
While I did not like every character, I could appreciate that character's perspective and motivation. Every one of them is acting upon what he or she thinks is the best course of action for all of humanity. And their rationale and actions are very different. Who's right? Does it even matter in a world where entire cities are gone?
The journey that these characters share culminates in some satisfying falling action and resolution. On a scientific level, this zombie plague is not explained as the usual virus. Don't get me wrong. I love the Newsflesh series by Mira Grant, but Carey puts in just as much scientific explanation with a different twist on this genre. And the delivery of the scientific reasoning is also especially delicious. It's an info dump, but an info dump that speaks to the book's title.
On a philosophical level, the story embraces the process of change: something new must be created, something old must pass, and something else must stay constant throughout. This idea interconnects beautifully with the science that Carey does provide leaving me slightly jarred, but in a good way.
If you're a fan of the zombie genre, then The Girl with All the Gifts is a must read for its poignant treatment of humanity's potential future.