Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) called The Girl With All The Gifts “Heartfelt [and] painfully human.” Without really knowing I was buying a zombie book, I picked up M.R. Carey’s novel a few weeks ago and finally settled down to read it. I am not a huge fan – or even a fan at all really – of zombies. I am, however, a fan of Joss Whedon, and an endorsement from him is enough for me to read outside of my comfort zone. Zombies, unlike vampires (Joss Whedon’s vampires at any rate), are just not sexy, and while I am still not a fan of zombie novels, I did really like this book.
Melanie is ten. She lives at some sort of army base, dubbed ‘Hotel Echo’ in an area of the U.K. known as region 6. The base is about thirty miles north of London, and just beyond that is Beacon. Welcome to life since the Breakdown.
Most of region 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burn patrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanie is pretty sure. It sends out burn patrols, to clear away the hungries.
Melanie is not an ordinary girl. For one thing, she is kept locked in a cell. For another, she and the other children at Hotel Echo exist on a diet of grubs. Every morning, she is strapped, wrists, ankles and neck, into a chair and taken, along with the other children, to the classroom where their teacher – usually Helen Justineau – teaches them. Those are Melanie’s favourite days because when Miss Justineau is teaching “the day is full of amazing things.” The children learn math and spelling; sometimes they are read to. Melanie is keen to learn as much as she can, but it’s difficult to know just what the lessons are for because as Mr. Whitaker (another one of the teachers) explains “None of this stuff matters anymore…it’s irrelevant. It’s ancient history! There’s nothing out there any more. Not a damn thing. The population of Birmingham is zero.”
Dr. Caldwell also lives at Hotel Echo. She’s busily working on a cure for the infection that causes people to become ‘hungries’ (and you’d be right in thinking that what they’re hungry for is humans). She sees the children as test subjects, nothing more. Helen Justineau strenuously disagrees with Caldwell’s methods and the relationship between the two women is fraught with ethical disharmony.
When Hotel Echo is attacked by junkers (violent scavengers taking advantage of the chaotic state of the world) Justineau, Caldwell and Melanie end up on the run with two soldiers, Parks and Gallagher.
I don’t really have a frame of reference for a zombie apocalypse book. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, which I have been told is really good, but really gory. I read and loved Courtney Summers’ This Is Not a Test, but despite the fact that it’s a zombie novel it is zombie-lite compared to The Girl With All The Gifts. So I don’t have any preconceived zombie notions, not like when I read vampire fiction and get all annoyed when they sparkle.
But make no mistake, The Girl With All The Gifts is more than a zombie novel. It’s a novel that asks us to consider what makes us human and whether or not we can be more than our nature allows. Caldwell views Melanie as a test subject, someone with the biological potential to save the world. Justineau views Melanie as a little girl. Parks views Melanie as a monster. They are all right. And wrong. The journey they take together will horrify and break the hearts of any reader prepared to go with them.
Read it before the movie comes out!