‘The most heartbreaking, mind-bending thriller of 2014!’ declares my review copy of MR Carey’s blockbuster thriller The Girl with All the Gifts. ‘Just 2014?’ my partner declared with a raised eyebrow upon seeing this glowing recommendation. ‘Not very confident, are they?’
Breathless hype over a book usually makes me disinclined to pick it up, but sometimes I can’t resist its implicit challenge: would this novel break my heart and bend my mind? Would it be the most thrilling thriller of 2014?
The short answers are ‘no’ and ‘probably not’, but they need qualifying; also, it’s only February, so I feel like any kind of ‘the most [insert dramatic adjective here] book of the year’ statements are somewhat premature. Nonetheless, Girl with All the Gifts, which had big word-of-mouth anticipation prior to its Australian release in January, is certainly a gripping riff on a subject that seems to have captured the popular cultural imagination: zombies.
Many of the most successful and effective tales of the undead offer social commentary as well as gore-spattered action: George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, comic-series-turned-TV-show The Walking Dead. In their representations of civilisation breaking down in the wake of a devastating mass infection, they expose our deepest fears about the collapse of our world as we know it: a collapse made more terrifying by the fact that it’s wrought by creatures that were once human.
There’s certainly a familiar set-up in Girl with All the Gifts, which opens in a military base in the UK shortly after a mystery outbreak has ravaged the globe and turned most of its population into ‘hungries’: people overtaken by the cannibalistic urge to feast on live flesh.
However, in an interesting twist, not all hungries are feral monsters ruled by their appetites. Inside the base lives Melanie, the novel’s highly intelligent protagonist, and about 20 other infected children who are able to function normally so long as they don’t get a tempting whiff of human. Melanie and her friends go to ‘school’ here (chained to their desks to ensure they don’t eat anyone), where they learn about the history and literature of a world that no longer exists. Melanie’s favourite teacher is Helen Justineau, who forms a bond with the little girl and can’t help but view all her charges as regular children, despite their inhuman appetites.
Meanwhile, base scientists are intent on finding a cure for the deadly pathogen by experimenting on the children to discover why they still possess a capacity for reason and emotion. Leading the charge is Caroline Caldwell, whose fascination with Melanie’s intellectual gifts seems destined to end with Melanie on an autopsy table. Justineau is fiercely opposed to Caldwell’s actions, but when the base is attacked, the fight for survival is on.
A few violent scenes notwithstanding, bloodthirsty battles with the walking dead aren’t the point of this novel; at its centre is Melanie’s discovery of her true nature, and the differing ways in which the uninfected base staff reconcile their interactions with her as a normal (albeit supremely intelligent) child and their knowledge of her darker animal instincts.
What propels the book is its remarkably well-drawn characters. This might be a story about zombies, but, of course, it’s really about people: how we respond in times of deep crisis and the sad fact that it isn’t always the real monsters who turn out to be the most monstrous.
Look, I didn’t have my heart broken or my mind bent after reading this book, but I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to, and that’s saying a lot for someone who voluntarily picks up a supernatural thriller about as often as Donna Tartt publishes a new novel. The Girl with All the Gifts is an especially thought-provoking and sensitive rendition of the familiar zombie apocalypse trope: clearly, there’s life in the undead yet.