M. R. Carey’s “The Girl With All the Gifts”

(This post contains minor spoilers. Read at your own discretion.)

I’ll be honest. The first time I found out about this book, I thought it was going to be about something different. Like mental illness or disabilities or something. How completely and utterly wrong was I.

M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts tells a story of a world that has been taken over by a fungal infection (caused by a real life fungus called ophiocordyceps unilateralis, so sleep on that), which causes humans to lose most, if not all, their mental capabilities and feed on human flesh to sustain themselves. These infected ones are known as ‘hungries’. In a military base in London, scientists are neck deep in experimentation, meticulously in their research but at the same time desperate a cure. Teachers are assigned to teach a group of test subjects, children who have yet to lose the ‘light in their heads’ and they then file a report in order for scientists to examine the ‘children’s’ brain activity. As far as anyone’s concerned, they are humanity’s last hope. One of these ‘children’, Melanie, proves to be unlike the others. They call her ‘our little genius’. They have plans for her. But no one saw coming what fell upon these people next…

I love how Carey decided to include a child’s perspective (a zombie child, no less) into this story, giving a fresh and unique take on zombie literature. It’s hard not to sympathise with Melanie; she’s a ten-year-old ‘child’ (although sometimes I find this hard to believe as she acts as though she is far older than that) filled to the brim with wide-eyed curiosity and a hunger for stories and not human flesh (at the start, anyway). Everyone either wants to protect her (for their own personal reasons) or wants her dead because they see her as a threat, a killing machine. There is no right way for her to live her life.

I also greatly enjoyed the fact that this is such a character-driven this book. Carey provides insight into what it’s like to be stuck in a near-hopeless zombie apocalypse situation from the perspective of multiple adults: from the cold and calculating Dr. Caldwell, protective and empathetical teacher Miss Justineau, pragmatic and no-nonsense Sergeant Parker, to even the cynical but wholesome Private Kieran Gallagher (with the ‘shit-awful luck’). They’re not all bad, but they all have different agendas that clash with each other more often than not. I can’t blame them for it. When faced with a possible annihilation of the human race via a fungal parasite, for lack of a better phrase, it will obviously eff you up. It will lead to multiple altercations and mistakes. It takes guts to not let your pride take over for the sake of survival.

The fact that this story is told from a third-person perspective and from multiple narrators make for effective storytelling, especially with so many stakes at hand. One way or another, all narrators are biased towards a person or a cause. Emotions running high and sheer determination have slightly warped their reality, thus making them somewhat unreliable. But third-person storytelling provides distance between the characters and reader and breathing room for us readers to process everything and make our own judgements about morality, mortality, what constitutes as human and what it means to be one.

For the record, I like Sergeant Parks and Miss Justineau the most and I love the complicated chemistry between them. The sergeant may be quite rude at times and could be perceived as heartless on several occasions, but he has the most experience when it comes to dealing with hungries and I think he’s the most sensible out of the bunch. And being sensible is probably one of the most important traits to have when dealing with hordes of flesh-eating monsters, amongst other killers. As for Miss Justineau, I applaud her for constantly and consistently fighting for Melanie’s right to ‘live’ (because, technically, Melanie is dead), even though sometimes her actions nearly cost the team their lives. Gallagher won my heart over time; he reminds me of pre-serum Captain America. It’s how I pictured him in the book, as well, except with red hair and freckles. Ginger Steve Rogers, ha, imagine that.

The prose is fluid, overflowing with emotional intensity as well as suspense that packs a punch. It’s clear that immense amounts of research went into the writing this book. I was sceptical at first; I thought that the onslaught of information will slow the story down—for me, anyway—because I always find it incredibly difficult to read when there’s so much science to process. I was proven wrong once again. Facts and figures are incorporated into this story so seamlessly, it not only makes everything a lot easier to understand (which is a massive bonus point from me) but is also fascinating. The bit where Dr. Caldwell dissects the children, for me, is the best bit in this book. It’s eerie how she does this without batting an eyelid. It’s told in such a clinical, matter-of-fact tone, too, normalising it almost—which makes it all the more unnerving. There are also bits where the infection is described in great detail for pages on end; it didn’t sicken me, but it made me feel squeamish as all hell.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a well-written, character-and-action driven novel. It has heart, grit, and poses so many questions as to where we draw the line for humanity, ethics, and how we value the life of another human being. So if you love books about zombies with exciting action sequences, the occasional gore, complex and fascinating characters, an up close and personal look into the world of science, and an engrossing plot, then this is the right book for you. There’s going to be a movie adaptation of it coming out in September, and I’m well and truly intrigued to see how they’ll translate all the science, carnage, and the many, many human complexities on screen.

If you’ve made this far into my post, then thank you for reading! Have you read this book yourself? If so, what did you think of it? And if you haven’t, are you interested in doing so? Feel free to share any opinions or recommend any books like this one in the comments below. Have a great day, everyone.

Until next time,
Dev.

(Side image taken from here)

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