The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey
Ten-year-old Melanie “has the cell, the classroom, the corridor and the shower room.” What she doesn’t have is a family, or anything resembling the regular life of a child. Her world is confined to a secure block within an army base, known as Hotel Echo, and the southern English landscape beyond that has for some years been divided into zones, with London 30 miles to the south and beyond that Beacon, a fortified area sheltering millions.
Sheltered from what? In The Girl With All the Gifts, M R Carey wastes no time in illuminating the threat. Beyond the base are the ‘hungries’, roaming zombies who are the result of a devastating infection that hit the global human population roughly three decades ago. There are a few surviving and free-ranging ‘real’ humans, known as junkers, who arm themselves and take their chances scavenging in the wild, but to the few survivors living in protected zones, each party presents an equivalent danger.
Melanie isn’t concerned by these matters; as the story opens, she has no knowledge of them. Her world is confined to the classroom, where she thirstily absorbs information from 30-year-old textbooks doled out by edgy teachers. The exception is Helen Justineau, the only adult who treats Melanie and her handful of classmates with notable kindness, and who defies the strictures of the tyrannical Sergeant Parks – and inadvertently brings the military-like structure crashing down – by one day touching Melanie in a gesture of comfort.
Why this is a shocking and unsupportable breach of the rules goes to the heart of the novel’s plot and themes, and there is little more to be said about the storyline without spoiling crucial discoveries for the reader. It is enough to say that it is among the most thrilling and thoughtful dystopic novels I have read, and where it lacks originality – anyone familiar with the walking-dead genre will recognize the fight-or-flight pattern the protagonists inevitably fall into – it more than compensates with the extraordinary illustration of a deepening bond between a quasi-child, who may be the most dangerous of all, and her surrogate mother, the only parent she will ever know.
It would not be a true survivor story without a single-minded scientist willing to kill to protect her research, end the pandemic and get her name in the history books (even as she wryly acknowledges there is no one left to write or read them), and Caroline Caldwell is a well-drawn example.
Her view of Melanie, as test subject number one whose brain would be invaluable if only she could get to it, is in stark opposition to Helen Justineau’s open love and affection for the child. The tug-of-war between the two women is an intimate echo of the larger battle of survival the small crew must fight using barely more ammunition than their wits.
M R Carey is the pen name of the current writer on Marvel’s X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, among other works, and The Girl With All the Gifts is the full-length adaptation of his own short story. It has also been the subject of a movie treatment, and its killer combination of smashing plot and sparkling characters, and evocation of tension and horror of classic works such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, make it unlikely to be overlooked by a major studio.
Its best feature, however, is Melanie, the ‘girl with all the gifts’ whose fondness for the story of Pandora and the box inspires the title, and who may yet save the world.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones