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Mar 01

Book Review: The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

What’s It About

Melanie might be your average teenager except for the fact that she lives in a small, metal cell.  Every morning a soldier comes to take her and more than a dozen teenagers to class.  This involves strapping Melanie and the others to wheelchairs and pointing guns to their heads.  Why are they being treated this way?  Why has she and her friends been cut off from the outside world?  Why are the soldiers and most of the teachers – except for Miss Justineau – frightened of Melanie and her friends?

The answers, unfortunately, aren’t very interesting (but I won’t spoil them here….

Should I Read It?

… or reveal them here.  What I will say is that for something that’s been billed as the “most original thriller you will read this year” this is a book that quickly runs out of ideas once Melanie’s situation is revealed.  It’s not helped that the book is populated by lazy stereotypes that have been cut and pasted from hundreds of other novels.

The book is readable and I did finish it – though that might have something to do with my inability to put down a novel once I’ve started.  However, unless you’re a complete newbie to horror fiction there’s nothing new to see here.

Representative Paragraph

Melanie experiences a rare moment of intimacy:

[Miss Justineau] strokes Melanie’s hair with her hand, like it was just the most natural and normal thing in the world. And lights are dancing behind Melanie’s eyes, and she can’t get her breath, and she can’t speak or hear or think about anything because apart from Sergeant’s people, maybe two or three times and always by accident, nobody has ever touched her before and this is Miss Justineau touching her and it’s almost too nice to be in the world at all.

Commentary

Spoilers!

It turns out that Melanie – and her friends – are intelligent zombies. On the surface they look and act like normal teenagers, if a bit wide-eyed and innocent, but take those straps off and give them a whiff of unprotected human flesh, and they go rabid with hunger.

It’s a neat idea, one that I don’t remember coming across, that lends itself to providing a different insight into the whole zombie phenomena.

The problem is that Carey has taken this one interesting idea and packaged it into a traditional zombie novel. Oh, the book fools you at first, the cover has a coming of age vibe about it, bright yellow with the silhouette of a girl, her hands outstretched.  The book also never uses the “z” word, instead they’re referred to as hungries. And the actual zombie contagion isn’t an act of the supernatural but rather the result of a mutated fungus that has the power to take over its host. However, once you scrape that veneer away, this is the same old post zombie apocalypse world that you’ve read a million times before.

About a third of the way into the novel the base, where Melanie and her friends are being kept, is overrun by a marauding horde of the undead (or fungus infected). Melanie escapes with her favourite teacher Ms Justineau, the local mad scientist, the hard as nuts army sergeant and the green “aw shucks” private. Like the rest of the novel, these characters follow a well trodden and familiar arc. The mad scientist grows increasingly madder. The hard as nuts sergeant turns out to have soft, chewy centre, the do-gooder teacher becomes all bitter and embattled (you’d be correct if you guessed that those two end up getting it on) and the young private who is barely competent and doesn’t want to die… ends up giving the novel its heroic sacrifice. Even Melanie, the one bright note in a book filled with tired old concepts and stereotypes, never grows much beyond the monster with a soul routine.

Toward the last third there is a brief glimpse of what the novel could have been. As our band of cut and paste characters walk through London they see evidence that the fungus is spreading as it mutates. They also come a cross a mobile laboratory that our mad scientist believes will better explain the make-up of the fungus and why Melanie has retained her intelligence. This leads to the late novel revelation that the fungus is waiting for a trigger (heat / fire) to spore, sending its seed through the atmosphere and infecting the remaining humans. It’s an interesting development, however it comes so late in the novel that we never get beyond the predictable sporing, which acts as the books dénouement.  All I could think about was how much more interesting The Girl With All The Gifts would have been if it had started with the fungus sporing, if the novel, through flashbacks and present day action, had explored the terraforming and re-building of Earth by a bunch of intelligent zombie teenagers.

I know, I know it’s not fair to judge a book on what it might have been. But I hate seeing a good idea go to waste, and unfortunately that’s what Carey does. Unless you’re a complete newbie to zombie novels, or post apocalyptic books in general, there’s nothing new to see here.

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