I read the first 30 pages of The Girl With All The Gifts on the train ride into work one rainy morning, and I'm pretty sure I got choked at least three times in that opening section of the book. Who the hell gets emotional over precocious 10-year-old zombies?
The Girl With All the Gifts is a new novel by M.R. "Totally Not Mike Carey" Carey. I've been a fan of M.R.'s alter ego for a while now, ever since his run on X-Men: Legacy and, more recently, his crazy Harry Potter metafiction series The Unwritten, so even if The Girl With All The Gifts wasn't one of the most-hyped genre books of the year, I would have still been pretty excited about it. However, it was heavily hyped, which made me that much more anxious to get my hands on an ARC — and I can happily say that it was worth every bit of the buzz.
The simplest way to describe The Girl With All The Gifts is as a young adult zombie novel, but even given my personal penchant for clunky noun-y elevator pitches, that description doesn't do the book justice. The story focuses on an eerily precocious young girl named Melanie, who lives in a cellblock with twenty other children like her, where they go to school and learn and then get forced back into their cells by soldiers. Once a week, the children are given a chemical shower and a meal of grubs. The kids seem a little weird, sure, but they're all remarkably articulate, if a little bit naïve and — oh yeah, they sometimes crave human flesh, like the other mindless "hungries" that have obliterated the British landscape.
Here's a trailer for the book:
The majority of the book focuses on the relationship between Melanie and her favorite teacher, Ms. Justineau, on whom she has one of those weird psuedo-crushes that plenty of ten-year-olds have but especially those who are already emotionally stunted by, erm, crazy fungal parasites. That's another thing — this psuedoscience surrounding the zombie outbreak in this book is some of the most well-researched and believable science I've ever read in a zombie story (not to mention, viscerally grotesque in way too many ways). If you want some spoilers, it's a very slight extrapolation from this very real bit of scientific horror.
The real strengths of the book lie in its characters, as well as M.R. Carey's delicate prose. Sure, there are a few places where I would have liked a bit more vivid descriptions than "bland army cellblock" and "post-apocalyptic countryside," but Carey is able to capture so much emotion in his stark and simple sentences. The relationships are complex, but they're rendered in such a way that they are easy to understand and empathize with. And honestly, the young-adult-as-intelligent-zombie metaphor is a particularly powerful one — the adults simultaneously underestimate her and also think she's dangerous, while she has trouble grasping the true complexities of the world around her. Young adult stories are often about coming into one's own and discovering one's true identity, and in the case of Melanie, that couldn't be more literal. She thinks, therefore she is, but she continues to struggle with understanding what that means for the other people around her — both human and hungry alike. The rest of the cast stray into two-dimensional territory — the gruff soldier, the alcoholic Irish rookie (oof), the viciously determined scientist, and the mothering, emotional researcher — but in the end, you can't help but feel for them and root for their journeys, as well as Melanie's (and, like all good drama, those journeys don't always work in harmony together...).
If you like zombie stories, or young adult stories, or post-apocalyptic stories, or teacher-student relationship stories, I absolutely cannot recommend this book more highly. So check it out — I swear, it doesn't bite...