The Girl with All the Gifts is one of those books I picked up on a whim. I was looking for something to read, and it was in my mum’s library pile. It’s set twenty years after an event known as the Breakdown, when Ophiocordyceps unaliteralis has mutated to infect humans, turning them into zombies that hunger for human flesh.
The Breakdown was exactly that: a complete breakdown of human society. Most of the towns and cities in the UK are either crumbling ruins or infested with zombies, known as “hungries”. Remaining humans in Britain tend to reside either in Beacon, described by one character as having been moving towards totalitarianism when she left several years ago, or in the wild. This last group, known as junkers, are described as almost as savage as the hungries – worse, perhaps, because they haven’t had their capacity for thought rotted away by disease.
And on a military base somewhere in the Midlands, scientists feverishly work to understand the disease, and the key is in the children they keep locked up there. These children are different from most hungries, because they retain higher brain function, and the hope is that through studying them a cure or vaccine might be found. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Melanie, one of these children. One of the soldiers finds her to be like no one he’s met before:
He’s not sure what she’s like. A live girl, maybe, dressed up as a hungry. But not even that. An adult, dressed as a kid, dressed as a hungry.
With her genius-level IQ, coupled with a childhood spent locked in cells and strapped into wheelchairs to prevent her biting anyone, Melanie is not an ordinary child. Indeed, her experiences are so far from those of the average reader that you would think she’d be difficult to relate to, and yet she’s so incredibly easy to sympathise with because, in spite of her hunger for human flesh, she’s so achingly human. She’s driven by a desire to protect Miss Justineau, a psychologist hired to work as a teacher on the base in order to study the children and who finds herself empathising with them. This empathy leads to kindness towards the children and Melanie, so starved for any kind of human contact that’s not a gun being held to her head or being manhandled into straps, adores her for it. Throughout the novel, she struggles with the conflict between her hungry urge to eat people and her innate human compassion. She has the intelligence and self-awareness of an adult, but the innocence of a child.
I’m not sure this is the kind of book you’d say you enjoyed. It was grim and gruesome, but also draws you in. I think that’s an effect of the level of world-building; the audience never even sees Beacon, yet we’re given a solid idea of what it’s like, and it’s not pretty. Likewise, the characters are richly imagined, and I found myself at once hating and sympathising with Dr. Caldwell, which takes real skill to pull off; normally if I’ve decided I dislike a character you’re going to have to prove they’re practically a saint underneath it all for me to sympathise with them, and Dr. Caldwell is no saint. Overall, it was an intensely emotional read.
My biggest criticism of the book would be its writing style, although this is an entirely personal preference and doesn’t speak to the quality of the book. There’s imagery there that points to Carey’s skill, as in this passage:
Moonlight paints the town in woodcut black and white like a picture from a book. Black predominates, turning the streets into unfathomable riverbeds of rushing air.
In many other places, however, the prose is too utilitarian for my liking, as in this passage a few pages prior:
He sets down on the table a bottle that he found in a storage cupboard while they were searching. It was on the floor, covered with a pile of mouldering J Cloths, and he wouldn’t have seen it at all except that he kicked it by accident and heard the clink and slosh as its contents were disturbed.
This is clearly a stylistic choice, and it fits in with the gritty world of the story. In scenes told from Melanie’s point of view, too, it fits with her age. Even so, I found it grating at times and it jerked me out of the story a bit.
Overall I’d call The Girl with All the Gifts a thought-provoking and well-imagined, if somewhat disturbing read. I rate it 4/5 stars.