Monday, 17 February 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey

Melanie: a young girl, smart, thirsty for knowledge, eager to understand the world, or the pieces of the world that her teachers let her see. A child who smiles and learns and yearns for love. Or an interloper? A ‘something else’ that controls this young girl’s body and just makes it seem like she is all those other things?

Melanie’s world is very small. She lives in a small, bare cell. Each day Sergeant and his people come and take her down the corridor, through the door at the end and into the classroom. There is a door at the other end of the corridor too, but she never gets to go through that one. She’d like to know what’s on the other side. Her life is controlled and regulated - Plato’s cave - and very little changes from week to week. But then two of the other children in her class are taken away and never come back. The questions start to pile in. What happened to them? Why does Sergeant get so very angry when the teacher touches Melanie’s hair? Why did Kenny snap and snarl at Sergeant like a dog when Sergeant showed Kenny his arm? And what is it inside Melanie that woke up when she smelt Sergeant’s skin?

It’s quite extraordinary that new things can still be done with what, in it’s most basic form, is a zombie apocalypse novel. As external events come into play, Melanie’s world comes crashing down and suddenly that small cell and clinical corridor are replaced with a lot of home truths. It is two decades since the Breakdown; anywhere outside of Beacon is unsafe, populated only by hungries and the survivalist Junkers. She is like people, but she’s not like people. The hungries don’t pay attention to her, but they’re a threat to everyone else. Why is she different?

Melanie and four others slog out into this open world: Dr Caldwell, the cold doctor who thinks only of science, of finding a cure, of solving the equation and receiving her due praise. What lengths will she go to to achieve her aims? Helen Justineau: damaged but caring teacher set on protecting her young charges. Private Gallagher, a young and green soldier stuck between a rock and a hard place, for whom moving forward to Beacon is equal to go backward. Sergeant Parks: the hardened leader who has survived by adhering to strict rules and behaviors as far as hungries are concerned, rules he’s now being forced to bend, but he’s determined to get the group back to Beacon. And Melanie: Caldwell is sure the secret locked inside Melanie’s head is the key to saving them all, if only she can get inside and figure it out.

But what if Melanie is something else entirely, something nobody even thought could exist? Something that turns all assumptions about the hungries upside down; that is at once extraordinary, but will also sound the death knell for them all?

The Girl With All the Gifts is a wonderful new take and new approach to a well-mined genre. It’s easy to figure out early what the deal is with Melanie’s world, yet M. R. Carey simultaneously keeps a lot hidden away from us. What exactly are the gifts that Melanie is holding? Will they make it back to Beacon? What will they encounter, discover, and have to endure along the way? Will Beacon even still be there? Carey’s writing is visually enticing – the world this eclectic group walk through played like a movie in my head – as well as creating that thrill and anticipation of a gripping novel; the questions and secrets perfectly balanced with adrenaline-inducing passages of action. It’s not an action heavy book, it’s not all run-run-run, hide-hide-hide: instead, a level tension runs through every page, every step, every decision these characters take. And it’s a level of tension that is satisfied by answers just as new questions arise, a really slick and effective piece of storytelling.

When I read Max Brooks’ World War Z, it gave me nightmares if I read before going to sleep, and at one point I was afraid The Girl With All the Gifts would have the same uncomfortable effect. Thankfully it didn’t, and I think this is because it’s such a character-driven story. Each of the five characters have their own secrets to protect; these secrets drive them forward, make them who they are, influence their reactions to the world and their reactions to each other. Can they let their secrets go? Can they change the others’ inbuilt responses?

As for the cause of the Breakdown - Dr Caldwell’s great project - I love the idea that something as seemingly small and innocuous as a fungus could bring about this level of devastation. In fact, I think it’s one of the best and most sensible explanations for a ‘hungry’ phenomenon postulated yet. Carey’s descriptions of these frozen creatures are enthralling: tendrils of grey sneaking through their bodies, the plants spore-ing and branching and growing and taking over while the hungries stand, waiting, for the next meal to walk by, the next trigger to wake them up and spur them onward. Add to this the abandoned land, buildings, villages, towns and cities left to rot for twenty years, while the fungus gradually, inexorably takes over. It's very cinematic.

Not all the questions are answered, not all the possible explanations given, but just enough is offered up to leave me satisfied. Ours and Melanie’s greatest fears are both realized and unrealized; the conclusion is a terrible work of art that is yet somehow right. The Girl With All the Gifts is being much lauded and rightly so: it is different and gripping and full of care in every respect.

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