I have a quandary. I want to tell everybody about the book I just finished, The Girl With All the Gifts. One of the best things about this book was that I had no idea it was a [insert genre] book. If I’d known it was a [insert genre] book, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I want to review this book, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t heard of it.
On the other hand I’m thinking: lots of people must know about this book because it’s also been made into a film, released only last year. Maybe these folk would like to read a more extensive review to decide if it’s worthwhile reading.
So to meet these competing reader requirements, this is a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, where YOU get to decide which review you read.
If you’ve never heard of this book or the film and you think you might read it, for a no-spoilers review… GO TO OPTION A.
If you’ve heard of The Girl With All the Gifts but haven’t read it yet, and don’t know if you should… GO TO OPTION B.
OPTION A – No-spoilers review
Looking at the title and the cover, I thought this was going to be a gentle book about a precocious young girl and her personal journey. It was about a precocious young girl’s personal journey, but it was not gentle.
The book centres on Melanie, a ten year old girl who wishes, like many other 10 year old girls, that she was called something else – she ‘likes the name Pandora a whole lot’ (which means ‘the girl with all the gifts’). However, we learn very quickly that she isn’t like any other 10 year old girl. She is incarcerated. She attends school everyday with other children, but she’s wheeled into the clasroom strapped to a chair so she can’t move her head, hands or feet. Melanie loves to learn and she idolises Miss Justineau, one of her teachers: ‘she sits there wide-eyed, drinking in everything that Miss Justineau says, and memorising it so that she can play it back to herself later, in her cell’.
The book starts out this way, making you think it’s about one thing. Then the clues build up, the pieces start falling into place and suddenly <bam> within a few chapters the book is something else altogether.
I struggled to put this book down; I was riveted right to the last page, and I didn’t predict the ending at all. There are some slightly ghoulish bits, but they’re not overly ghastly and as a counterpoint, it’s not a difficult read. It’s enthralling and escapist – just what you want in a book.
This really is a book that you’ll appreciate more, the less you know. So, you are now excused to buy/ borrow this book at your leisure (and no peaking at Option B).
OPTION B – The full monty
Right. You guys know that this is a book about zombies. It may seem ridiculous, but I HAD NO IDEA. (I missed the bit in the blurb that likened it to The Walking Dead). As I read further into the first few chapters, I became increasingly perplexed, then horrified, but by that stage I was hooked.
I’ve never read a zombie book before and I’ve only seen one serious zombie film (28 Days Later) and one silly one (Shaun of the Dead), so I didn’t know what to expect. Having picked the brains (ha ha) of my zombie-aficionado friend however, I can confirm that The Girl With All the Gifts does not totally follow the usual zombie journey and so even if you’ve reached zombie-saturation point, there’s still plenty in this book to keep you entranced (get it?).
What makes this book particularly special is the central character Melanie. We figure out early on that she too is a ‘hungry’, but she is also a very special child – she is a 10 year old genius, with a voracious appetite (groan) for learning and a huge capacity for empathy and love, which would go unfulfilled but for Miss Justineau, her teacher. The love that these two characters develop for each other, despite Miss Justineau being a potential food-source for Melanie, is properly heart-warming.
The other two main characters, scientist Dr Caldwell and military man Sergeant Parks, are well-drawn in their own right, but they also serve to illustrate the deepening relationship between the child and her teacher, and Melanie’s own journey of self-discovery. The chemistry, distrust and hatred these four characters hold for each other waxes and wanes throughout the novel, sometimes matching the external terrors, sometimes as a result of internal ones.
In tandem with delivering a heart-thumping thriller, M.R Carey delves deep into some philosophical questions – the ethics of experimental science; the im/morality of humans; the impotency of the military and the government. There are also existential moments – as the foursome journey south towards London in search of the mythic human citadel, we see the barren and monstrous landscape that England has become, thirty years after the apocalypse. It is these scenes that unveil to us, and the foursome, just how futile the struggle for survival was for almost all of humanity.
As a bonus to get your imagination truly running wild, it turns out that the storyline is not even all that fanciful, as revealed by the Mirror newspaper here. The Ophiocordyceps fungus, which turns humans into hungries in the book, turns tropical ants into zombie-ants IN REAL LIFE. To wit, a zombie apocalypse is not totally inconceivable.
The Girl With All the Gifts could also be called The Book With Everything You Want: it’s gripping and thrilling but also poignant and it unexpectedly provides a sliver of optimism in what would otherwise be a bleak allegory for humanity. Whether you’re a zombie diehard or a zombie novice, you will devour this book.