The Girl with All the Gifts
by M.R. Carey
Genre: dystopia, horror, YA, science fiction
Awards: Audie Award for Paranormal (2015), nominee in number of awards
Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
This is a dystopia with an unusual twist that surprised me in a positive way. At first you think we’re dealing with the usual zombie apocalypse, but throughout the novel small things grown-up characters let slip reveal that is not the case. The people are alive but taken over by a fungus from the Amazon rainforest. I always knew the destruction of the Amazon would come to bite us in the proverbial behind. The fungus hijacks the nervous tissue and brain of its host – shutting down the higher brain functions. So people may look dead but they are anything but. The fungus used to do this to ants, making them go to higher places before sprouting spores and effectively killing the host. But nothing seems to indicate the mutated fungus will ever reach this stage with human hosts. Yet, there are children who can successfully regain their higher brain functions and even exhibit astounding levels of intelligence. So something is going on and the scientists are determined to find out and manufacture a cure for the dwindling population of uninfected people.
“Hungries toggle between two states. They’re frozen in place most of the time, just standing there like they’re never going to move again. Then they smell prey, or hear it, or catch sight of it, and they break into that terrifying dead sprint. No warm-up, no warning. Warp factor nine.”
One of those special children is Melanie and one of the narrators – in my opinion the best one because she is a fascinating character. Her entire world constitutes her cell, classroom, and the community bathroom. She’s used to being treated as an object by the soldiers and as a child by her favourite teacher Miss Justineau. But she begins to put things together from the few snippets of conversation she overhears. She realises she is something different. The first clue is her greyish skin that is the opposite of the rich brown tone of her teacher; the second one the food she’s given – a mesh of worms and other unmentionables that has nothing in common with the food from the stories Miss Justinaeu reads to them. Melanie begins to suspect she’s like one of those special heroes from the Greek myths and she becomes slightly obsessed with Pandora.
“And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.”
When two of her friends never return from the journey beyond the big steel door, she begins to suspect they are dead, a concept that greatly disturbs her. She decides to do her best to protect Miss Justineau from it as well. She loves her with a childlike passion that is both inspirational as super creepy. There’s just something inhumane about her – the level of steely intelligence and the blatant disregard for other people she has no personal connection to puts her firmly in the other category. Yet she also behaves with this childlike wonder about everything that just melts your heart a little. I just couldn’t make up my mind about her and I vacillated between sympathy and dislike. I’m just not used to ‘zombies’ that behave like humans (Warm Bodies series notwithstanding). The trouble is that Melanie gets hungry if she smells human pheromones – so blockers are a must if humans hope to survive around her. She is great at battling her instincts but that does not make her an ally to humanity.
“It doesn’t matter,” she explains to Miss J. “I want to be where you are. And I don’t know the way back to wherever I was before, anyway. I don’t even remember it. All I remember is the block, and you. You’re…” Now it’s Melanie’s turn to hesitate. She doesn’t know the words for this. “You’re my bread,” she says at last. “When I’m hungry. I don’t mean that I want to eat you, Miss Justineau! I really don’t! I’d rather die than do that. I just mean… you fill me up the way the bread does to the man in the song. You make me feel like I don’t need anything else.”
Then she’s chosen to go through the door, something that horrifies her teacher who is determined to stop the experiments. Of course that is the moment everything goes to hell and the base is attacked by a group of people who have braved it out outside the quarantine areas. Not sure about their motives or if they are partly zombies as well – it isn’t explained at all in the book. The end result is that a small group makes it out; Miss Justineau, officer Parks, Dr.Caldwell (Melanie’s main nemesis), and a soldier grunt. They must find a way through London, a major infestation area. Along the journey more is revealed about the past and the characters themselves but Melanie is the one undergoing major changes – she learns more about herself and the infection, about humans, society, and the hopes for the future. This part dragged a bit but the pace of the story really picks up in London, ending with a satisfying twists.
“It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.”
Recommended to all dystopia and post-apocalypse literature fans that are looking for something a little different – you won’t regret it.