Melanie is a very special girl. She’s smart, a genius, really. She enjoys her lessons, especially those given by her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s polite. And she likes the taste of human flesh. Melanie, M. R. Carey’s brainchild, is The Girl With All the Gifts (Hachette, June 10, 2014).
The Girl With All the Gifts opens in an indeterminate time and place, from Melanie’s sheltered, childish perspective. Melanie and her classmates spend their days in school. Sargent Parks and his soldiers escort the children to and from class, restraining them in wheelchairs, one soldier tightening the restraints while the other covers him with his gun. “I won’t bite,” Melanie jokes, but no one laughs. Something is very wrong.
Carey creates suspense by establishing the setting gradually, over the first few chapters. “What the hell is going on?” the reader wonders. (And will continue reading.) This is England, circa the mid-twenty-first century. Civilization has collapsed in the wake of environmental catastrophe. A strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps evolved that was capable of infecting humans, hijacking them to serve as vectors for spreading the parasite. Infection is rapid, irreversible, and turns the host into a mindless cannibal. Carey’s characters call them “hungries”; we’d call them “zombies.”
This isn’t a new scenario, of course. The zombie trope made a comeback in the 2000s. Readers of The Girl With All the Gifts will compare the book to the film 28 Days Later, both of which feature zombie pandemics set in England. The comparisons end there, though. Melanie, herself a “hungry,” is a point of interest. In addition to its horror elements and survival aspects, The Girl With All the Gifts is, in some ways, a distorted coming of age story, as Melanie learns the truth about herself, explores the world, and investigates the mystery of Ophiocordyceps.
Melanie, Miss Justineau, Sargent Parks, Private Gallagher, and Dr. Caldwell travel south through a stricken England, aiming for “Beacon,” the fortress that serves as the last vestige of English government and society. There is tension in the group. Parks would rather dispatch Melanie, herself infected, than travel with her, but is opposed by Justineau, the girl’s teacher, and Caldwell, the nominal leader. Justineau and Caldwell, civilians, are at loggerheads, too, the former treating Melanie as a human being, the latter considering her a future test subject. After saving Miss Justineau (with her teeth), Melanie has acquired a taste for flesh, which she must resist. And, in addition to the hungries, the group must avoid “junkers,” survivalists who roam the countryside, living off of what they can scavenge. (The junkers reminded me of scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Carey combines horror, survivalism, and elements of psychological thrillers to great effect.
Carey’s prose is simple and straightforward, ideal for the story he tells. One sentence leads seamlessly to the next, a brisk pace that will hook readers and drag them along. I found myself trying to read faster than I’m able to, almost skipping ahead in my impatience to find out what would happen next, what new misfortune would befall the group. I suspect readers will have a similar experience. You’re in Carey’s hell, and he sets the pace.
London, of course, plays an inevitable role in The Girl With All the Gifts, serving as the setting for the last third of the story. The reader feels the characters’ dread as they enter the ruins of the world’s great cities. “No,” you think, “don’t go through London!” But of course they have to, and, of course, you want them to. The city is empty not only of people, but also, oddly, of hungries. In London, the fungus is taking a turn unobserved elsewhere, and which will feature, ultimately, in the outcome of the story. London is the crucible in which the characters’ fates are decided.
The Girl With All the Gifts takes its title from Melanie’s favorite story, the myth of Pandora, whose name translates as “all gifts.” Carey, of course, is hinting at Melanie’s role in his story. Action-packed, suspenseful, haunting, The Girl With All the Gifts is highly recommended.