Melanie is a smart, inquisitive and affectionate ten year old. She would much prefer to be called Pandora rather than Melanie but she knows that she must do whatever she is told and understands that there must be a good reason why she is kept locked in a cell, why she is chained to a wheelchair when it’s time for lessons, why she and her friends are pushed into the classroom one by one, the fingers of one hand freed so that she can make notes. Miss Justineau is Melanie’s favourite teacher. She teaches them about myth and legend, history and the world outside, the world that Melanie is not allowed to see. Until the day comes when Melanie’s cell door is opened for the last time.
The Girl With All the Gifts proved to be a shock to me. It challenged all my expectations and preconceptions about horror and delivered a story and young heroine that are both captivating and unforgettable. It was pretty obvious to me from the outset what this book would be about – just the wonderful cover and the premise were enough. However, just in case you don’t know and don’t want to know, I’ll put the rest of the review under this warning that it contains extremely minor spoilers.
This fabulous novel is made of two parts. In the first, we are part of a restricted, enclosed world, learning about Melanie’s school week and becoming increasingly horrified by the mix of the mundane with the grotesque. But at the heart of it all is Melanie. So much of what we see is shown through her eyes, including her confusion, her hunger for knowledge and her love for her school teacher. It is impossible not to warm to this young child, so normal and yet so different. It is because of Melanie that I was unable to put the novel down, even when it began to veer into territory where I am not at all comfortable.
In the second and larger part of The Girl With All the Gifts, events unfold outside the school. The compound has been overrun by the Hungries, the ‘people’ kept outside by walls, alarms and soldiers. An unlikely group manage to escape, including Melanie, Miss Justineau and two of the soldiers who have been trained to never do anything less or more than treat Melanie like a dangerous animal. They have no option but to keep moving. Throughout, almost with every step, Melanie continues to learn, but now the lessons have changed. The subject is now herself and this new world. Likewise, the others too have a lot to learn about Melanie.
I am no fan of novels about zombies but I started the novel fully aware that this is what I would have to deal with and I was prepared to put up with them because of the compelling story of Melanie and her companions, especially the school teacher and the army sergeant. Even when The Girl With All the Gifts treads more familiar and traditional horror ground (and in a fair few parts it does), it rises above it due to this extraordinary young girl and these extremely odd relationships. The story behind the Hungries likewise has an originality about it that makes a zombie-hater put up with them. These are, thank heavens, zombies with a difference.
M.R. Carey is such a good writer, as his work as author and film writer under other guises has shown, and he has mixed together the human and unhuman into an extraordinary pageturner that is as moving as it is horrifying and thrilling. Our sympathies are taken to places you wouldn’t normally expect them to go. Nobody or nothing is immune from our care and, as a result, this reader at least wasn’t able to tear herself away from Melanie’s side. If you don’t like horror, especially ‘this’ type of horror, The Girl With All the Gifts may still be the book for you. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten for 2014.