review: The Girl With All the Gifts

For a long time, zombie stories focused on the human survivors trying to get out of a zombie infested territory to safety.  But lately, zombie-as-protagonist stories have shown up, like iZombie the graphic novel by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred, or My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland.  The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey is one of these—only with more literary chops, complex characters, fascinating science, and freaky-horrific world building than a dozen lesser zombie titles combined.  Add in a super compelling voice and you’ve got a sci-fi/horror/literary bomb to blow your mind with, even if this isn’t your usual genre-taste.
Melanie is the ten-year old protagonist, a genius in a strange boarding school where she is muzzled and locked up at gun point at night, along with the other children. Although it doesn’t seem to bother her much—she’s more focused on the adoring crush she has on one of her teachers.  Her bright, inquisitive mind makes her extremely likable, and indeed, one of the most amazing parts of this book is Melanie’s arc, what she retains of her idealistic and open-hearted beginnings, and what she lets go of as she faces the truth of her world and her nature.The middle part of the book is the classic “road trip through zombie country” but the book is never a series of action-sequences or feats of bad-assery. This isn’t that book.  The moments of violence and conflict are terrifying and desperate, with mounting stakes and hopelessness that make the intensity of the reading almost too much to take by the end. I kept having to take breaks, just to get my breath and get out of my own stew of stress-chemicals.  The point isn’t the fight.  The point is how the characters endure, or not, and what it means to survive all of this.  Or not.The science is fascinating.  Not a tacked-on “reason” for zombies, but a thoroughly believable scenario, terrifyingly depicted.  Carolyn Caldwell is the scientist trying to understand what has happened and save humanity—making her hunger to dissect Melanie’s brain to understand why Melanie is a thinking, feeling zombie (and not a cannibalistic human-shaped husk) compelling and understandable.  Although, in that way, Caldwell is more of a brain-hungry zombie than Melanie.

But could Caldwell’s brutal practicality save the human race?  And does that justify…anything? How about the live-dissection of children?  But why ARE Melanie and the other children the way they are?  Is it partial immunity?  Perhaps a cure, or a vaccine, could be created, if only Caldwell can finish her research.  Which you can’t help but hope for, even as you detest her methods and want Melanie to win.  Conflicts like these are the meat of the book.  No easy answers, no black/white.

Miss Justineau is Melanie’s teacher, and, for her own reasons, determined to keep Melanie alive. But perhaps compassion is the wrong feeling to have for the infected.  Is it just a knee-jerk, foolish reaction to the appearance of a “child”?  Trying to hold onto her own humanity—and the way she offers what she has to Melanie, from kindness to Greek mythology—might be the thing that saves Melanie, or it might be too little too late for this world.  Sgt. Parks, the soldier who tries to keep the rest safe with his single-minded focus on security, certainly thinks so. His arc, more subtle than Melanie’s, starting from monster-soldier, is deeply moving.

The strange world of the zombies is revealed layer by layer.  But the remnants of our destroyed society, now shaped by profound fear, is possibly more horrific than the zombies themselves.  The strange hope that springs out of the Melanie’s final choices is simultaneously devastating and transformative.  Like Caldwell, it is equally balanced between poles: terrible and hopeful.  Disturbing and compelling.

I’ve been feeling the echoes of the book for days.  For example, I keep catching myself marveling (in a kind of terrified and disgusted way) at my frivolous caring about things like lipstick or cell phones or tv shows while the environment is degrading around us as a rapid rate. Heavy stuff. It’s a book that can make you take stock.

Highly recommended.

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