The Girl with All the Gifts is perhaps the most heart-rending dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction that I have ever read till date. A book that is pure gold and shines through the clutter that clogs the genre fiction today.
One of Orbit’s biggest US releases this year – it came in UK in January this year – this book surpasses all my other post-apocalyptic/zombie reads (Yes. Put The Passage, Reapers are Angels, Aftermath and Newsflesh trilogy down in that list please!) By far the most satisfying read in this genre and I’m not exaggerating. Maybe it’s because Carey decided to spin this tale mainly from the point of view of the protagonist (the Girl with all the gifts), a ten-years old sweet young child. It is a great move. In addition to making a reader bask in the sweet innocence of a young child exploring the wonders of the world and then slowly proceed to unravel mysteries and thus mature along the way, it also fulfills the purpose of lulling them into a false sense of security – thus making them more vulnerable to the shocking revelations that follow-up. And my word, the revelations! This book is full of surprises. They keep coming. It’s a series of left and right hooks and jabs that keep pummeling you as a reader till the final twist just ups and then finishes off in an unprecedented move like a spike pile-driver and axe bomber combined.
One word of caution if you truly wish to enjoy this book. Keep away from the Internet once you start on this story. I had no expectations going into this one and that is probably one of the chief reasons, this book truly blew me away.
The Girl with All the Gifts features Melanie, a young girl in an isolated facility – going about her daily routine and slowly learning about the world around her – her classes on algebra and regression, the teachers ( Miss Justineau, the most entertaining of the lot who regales the classes with stories of greek mythology and the girl called Pandora, Mr. Whitaker who drinks from his bottle and becomes nice for a while only to get worse as he continues to drink…) and her ‘home’. Home is a cell with steel doors – leading out to a long corridor with two doors – one that leads to her classes and the other – another steel door that she has only seen open twice in her lifetime. She describes in captivating wonder about how every morning she gets up to the sound of alarms going off and sits up and waits for the ‘Sergeant’ and his boys to come pick her for ‘school’. The pick-up is at gun-point – where she is strapped into a wheelchair, her hands, legs and neck is locked in. And at this point, Melanie usually says, “It’s okay, I won’t bite.” With a smile.
It’s an understatement. The growing sense of unease and that mind-boggling discovery worked wonders for me as I dove in, sucked in by this wonderful strange child and her strange world.
For Melanie… is a “hungry”. A zombie in Carey’s world where the body has been taken over and is controlled by a fungus, Cordyceps. Albeit a special one. The world outside the camp has gone to rot. With a zombie outbreak caused by Cordyceps fungi (the origins of the outbreak is written in glorious riveting detail like a David Attenborrough’s Discovery program and meticulously researched for the same as well!) the military cum research base could be the only solution to the problem of the “Breakdown”. For unlike the “hungries” outside their military base that have only two states: Hungry and rabid, foaming at the mouth and incredibly mobile or drooling, unmoving, vacant and listless, the special ones, like Melanie exhibit fascinating and intriguing possibilities. And Dr. Caldwell, in charge of this research program believes that possibly the cure to this fungi outbreak could be found with these special kids. But as with all things go, the whole facility gets overrun by a swarm of hungries and its up to this final group of five survivors (Melanie, her favorite teacher Justineau, the evil doctor Dr. Caldwell, the rough war-scarred veteran Sergeant and the green novice soldier) to find their way back to civilization and perhaps find a way to cure the hungries. Will Melanie be their savior?
In what follows to a stunning utterly unbelievable climax, Carey takes us through a harrowing journey to the world outside. A story of a zombie-apocalypse survival. A story of gritty determination. But above all, it’s a story about a girl’s unflinching faith in love. A girl-crush that soon matures and yet loses none of its shine for all the bleak awareness that seeps in about herself and the “hungry” world she is in, Melanie’s relationship with her teacher, Helen Justineau has been portrayed in such a heart-warming manner that bowls you over. Without crossing over into sticky syrupy sentimentality – Carey does a commendable job of this. Also presented is the age-old ethical question of is it okay to use “high-functioning” zombies as lab test victims to find a cure?
Dr. Caldwell, the cold, neurotic, self-obsessed and with a single-track mind of finding the cure doesn’t hesitate in taking the extreme steps for science. (huh!) and on the opposing side of the spectrum, we have Psychologist Helen Justineau who vehemently opposes this ‘animal’ treatment of the kids- zombies with feelings and increasingly in touch with their ‘human’ emotions. A sentient zombie maybe a new twist on the age-old sentient robot trope but absolutely handled with master class unparalleled by Carey. Carey, a veteran of numerous award-winning comics like Lucifer and Unwritten, creates arresting imagery with his prose of the world overrun by zombies. Filtered through Melanie’s eyes – the wonders of this strange world (Her first time in the wild watching flowers of different colors and the birds is absolutely gorgeously detailed!) blooming out, the world over-run by the grey filaments of the fungi outbreak – all of this paints a gooey vivid images that stays long after the book.
In terms of characters, it is of course Melanie and her teacher Helen who drive the book forward. Both very strong female protagonist but Melanie of course has this sweet blithe oblivious nature of a wondrous curious child who quickly grows up in the aftermath and makes executive decisions with ruthless compassion. Helen brings in the softer side of things – the human struggling to come to terms with her fondness for this sentient zombie kid with feelings. The others, including sergeant Parks and his deputy, the novice soldier are archetypal sidekicks. Dr. Caldwell does evoke hatred with her steadfast stubborn nature for wanting to cut into the kids’ brains for a cure but is a cruel necessity in Carey’s world.
It is a grim new world elevated to sublime levels of detail through Melanie’s curious eyes. And unlike a lot of zombie-apocalypse books that concentrate on the survival run with a lot of gore and guts spilling, this book yanks the carpet from under you by putting the driver seat in a zombie’s hands. And this book has a lot of heart. A tender relationship as described earlier between Melanie and her teacher forms the core of the book and this for me made the book a winner. The whole novel took me by surprise – and Carey takes this suspense and surprise element up by several notches until in the end, everything simply blazes up in an utterly knock-out climax that is unpredictable but in hindsight, just beautiful and gut-wrenching.
It’s a book that you should be reading in 2014. A guaranteed 2014-best-of-list novel, all that was promised is delivered and topped up. M.R.Carey, you have a BIG FAN in me!