Recommended for fans of self-discovery
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
One mark of a great book is how it plays with reader expectations. The strategy of taking a conventional genre story and turning it sideways often works. Sometimes it can fail, coming across as little more than a clever gimmick. But sometimes it succeeds beyond imagining, particularly in the hands of an author with talent like Carey’s. The Girl With All the Gifts uses lovely prose to explore the growth of ten year old Melanie, a child of the apocalypse who seems to be shuttled between a cell, a classroom and a shower.
It is a story about discovery. Melanie is particularly fond of Miss Justineau, a teacher who exposes them to wonderful ideas: Greek stories and mythology, playing a flute, the kings and queens of England, and even the population of all the British cities (allowing her to figure probable population density, though she has the feeling her figures need updating). The day they read the Light Brigade (presumably The Charge of the Light Brigade) and start asking Miss Justineau about death, and families, ideas start sparking:
“Melanie knows her classmates well enough to be sure that they’re turning Miss Justineau’s words over and over in their minds, the same way she is–shaking them and worrying at them, to see what insights might fall out. Because the one thing they never learn about, really, is themselves.”
It is a story about a innocence. We learn about Melanie the same way that she does; in bits and pieces as she assembles the puzzle of her world around her. Her day always begins in her cell, with Melanie sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for the Sergeant to point his gun at her while his two soldiers buckle straps around her wrists, ankles and neck. She’s wheeled into a classroom with other kids who appear to be similarly restrained. As Melanie describes her teacher, the facility, the relationships around her, both she and the reader start to build the world. Perhaps the reader will draw inferences faster than Melanie, being older, more experienced, and more cynical. An interesting tension is created as the reader waits to see if her conclusions are correct.
It is a story of contrasts. In the beginning, the austerity of the cells and the barrenness of the compound are countered in the moments Melanie is exposed to the outdoor world. Early on, when Miss Justineau brings spring flowers into the classroom for the first time: “The children are hypnotised. It’s spring in the classroom. It’s equinox, with the world balanced between winter and summer, life and death, like a spinning ball balanced on the tip of someone’s finger.”
It is also a story of identity. Narrative is largely Melanie’s experience, but there are also chances to experience the world from the perspectives of Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. The characters come to discover and learn to define themselves, leading to moments of profound awareness: “The second is that some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl ‘I’m here for you’, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment. It has nothing to do with guilt for earlier crimes (although she has a pretty fair understanding of what she deserves), or any hope of redemption. It’s just the outermost point on an arc. She’s risen as far as she can, and now she’s falling again, no longer in control (if she ever was to start with) of her own movements.”
Yet despite the engrossing story, I have, perhaps, two issues with the book. First, Melanie’s voice feels mature, even though it lacks sophistication in interpretation. I’m not a giant fan of books starring a young protagonist, so while it is hard to precisely identify the source of discontent, I feel fairly certain it is there. Secondly, the ending was not precisely satisfying. However, I’m willing to give Carey that one; after all; it was appropriate as well as consistent with his genre-challenge. And some times, the best books push just enough that I am led to my own self-discovery.
I’ve never made any secret of being a zombie apocalypse fan. In my old age, I’m finally allowing myself to be unabashedly enthusiastic. The Girl with All the Gifts is one of those rare genre entries that will satisfy most readers regardless of their feelings about zombie books.
“And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.
But you have to open it to find that out.”
Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for providing me an advance e-reader copy. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition.