Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

Girl_with_GiftsI’m reviewing The Girl with All the Gifts finally after a long absence – I read this book for the first time last February and I re-read it recently a few days ago. Re-reading it affirmed that it is almost certainly one of my favourite entries into post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered so far.

The Girl with All the Gifts is at its root a very simple story. Humanity has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns host humans into mindless zombies. We meet Melanie, a young girl who seems, at first glance, to just be going to school in this weird, destroyed shadow of society… but there’s something not quite right about this “school” and the students within. She waits for “school” by waiting in her cell; she’s strapped to a wheelchair for “class” and is treated as a mixture between an unexploded bomb and an abomination by the “school’s” military garrison.

The first quarter of The Girl with All the Gifts does an impeccable, wonderful job of building up that everything is not as it seems with Melanie and her classmates. They’re not normal children but something much worse that everyone should be fearful of. Over the course of the first quarter of the book we notice some things that are off, and not quite right. It’s not a school but a military base – what purpose does this base serve? And where are the children going?

It’s atmospheric, ominous and it draws you in to find out why. That is why I consider The Girl with All the Gifts to be a brilliantly written book – M. R. Carey’s prose is taut but not cold with clinical distance, but maintains a sense of warmth and foreboding that draws the reader in. I found it to be a very, very readable book – on my recent re-read I managed 100 pages in about 40 minutes. Then there’s genuine tension and horror as the reader travel outside of the base, through some thrilling and visceral action, throughout the ruined United Kingdom, to apparent salvation.

When I read this book last year I read it immediately after The Day of the Triffids, and there’s a lot of similarities – nature reclaiming the world after an ecological, civilization-ending event, with redoubts of humanity scattered. The fungal-based “hungries” are pretty analogous to Triffids too, at least that was my interpretation, especially hungries progressed to the end-state, and those that progress to a something akin living plant, where the Ophiocordyceps has totally hotwired the host’s mental functions. The victims stop acting like people but rather shells of people infested and animated by the desires – basest and simplistic as they are – of the Ophiocordyceps, with nothing human remaining.

The story itself, once we break out of the base, remains tight.  There’s only a small repertoire of characters we experience Carey’s ruined world from the perspective of, and it’s just about right. Melanie is a special case, of course – she’s a “hungry”, as victims of the Ophiocordyceps fungus are termed, but one that has retained her mental faculties. She’s of prime importance to the voice of cold, clinical science, Dr Caldwell and forms a warm, emotional bond with her teacher, Helen Justineau. Melanie’s relationships with Justineau and Caldwell underpin a significant difference in how she and her fellow kind, mentally-cognitive hungries, are perceived: while science classifies them as dead, for the fungus has permeated the nervous system, Justineau relates on an emotional level to Melanie’s exhibition of characteristics that remain human in appearance.

That, I feel, is the main point of The Girl with All the Gifts – what really is humanity? How can humanity process a change of the nature the fungal outbreak to the very fabric of the species? The tussle between Justineau and Caldwell, and the schools of thought they represent, leaves a longing impact in the reader’s mind – at least, it certainly did for me.

And The Girl with All the Gifts uses a foe that is both novel to zombie fiction but also terrifying – a fungal outbreak. This is a welcome change from the “escaped bioweapon” or “extra-terrestrial invasion” that can be played a bit thin for the premises of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fungal infection is a totally natural occurrence and one humans have no defence against, ultimately. And Carey’s inspiration comes from a terrifying extrapolation of a fungus, the Ophiocordyceps, that already exists and just asks one question: what if this fungus attacked humanity? This clip from Planet Earth is widely reported to be the direct inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts; it’s even referenced in the text:

The Girl with All the Gifts is not perfect, but it’s close to. The journey to Beacon, humanity’s last, apparent, refuge, is ultimately a trip in vain – is there even a Beacon to to return to? But the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts reflects that – the group’s journey to Beacon reflects humanity’s journey against Ophiocordyceps. And I wish The Girl with All the Gifts expanded a little more into this universe that’s created as I feel it’s so rich and ripe for exploration.

Girl_with_Gifts_FTICharacter-wise, the narrative focuses on two, maybe three, of the main characters to which we join upon the journey, with the rest less fleshed out. Dr Caldwell is “cold science” to Helen Justineau’s “hot emotion”, and the conflict between over Melanie is palpable – again, it’s easy to see both sides, but it’s a square impossible to circle. I feel some of the other characters – Sgt Parks and Gallagher – are less well-definied, almost empty stereotypes, and the attempts to develop their stories is impeded by a break-neck plot; The Girl with All the Gifts takes place over several days, once the first act is broken out of. Does this change of pace fit well? Not perfectly, no.

I do feel the ending does come together in a more reflective and conceptual way than the rest of the book perhaps leads into, but it does leave the reader pondering. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction there is no “magic bullet” to save humanity, and to its credit The Girl with All the Gifts ratchets that emotional impact up to the fore in the ending, presenting a genuine choice for humanity: wither and die or embrace the inevitable. For its first act alone, The Girl with All the Gifts is rightly lauded, but the book as a whole remains a thought-provoking and deeply memorable read.

Oh, and no, I’d not played The Last of Us before reading this book, and likely won’t.

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