Another (good) zombie novel: The Girl With All The Gifts

I’ve read a few zombie novels; I Am Legend, World War Z, as well as Justin Cronin’s The Passage and The Twelve. So when someone recommended The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey, a part of me found the thought of another zombie novel unexciting. But I’m really glad I read it. It was well-written, gripping, and a nice examination of some interesting questions.

Some of my thoughts below touch on different plot points; so before I go further, I’ll say that if you haven’t read it, it’s worth reading. When I finished, it occurred to me that it was a good enough story that it could get picked up as a movie in a few years (speaking of which, Gone Girl is now a movie).

Cover: The Girl With All The Gifts

[Mild spoiler alert: The next section talks about mysteries uncovered about a third of the way through the book, and later I’ll talk about the book’s ending]. 

One thing I enjoyed was the way Carey switched between narrative viewpoints. Particularly early on in the novel, he shows us the world through Melanie’s eyes. Melanie is a young child, who also happens to be a zombie. She lives in a test facility, and has no real memory of the outside world, because she only learnt to speak (and, in the story’s construction, to remember) after entering the facility. That means that Carey can heighten the narrative by contrasting Melanie’s viewpoint with those of the other characters, who the reader thinks of as more ‘normal’ (they’re not zombies, for a start). That works well, in giving us a fresh view of the world; occasionally it feels jarring, when as a reader I’d built an image based on Melanie’s description, only to find from another viewpoint that the situation was different.

One of the other things I liked about the novel was the way Carey uses Melanie’s situation to highlight a very common tension, an experience most of us have had – struggling with self control. Melanie is a highly intelligent child, and ‘grounded’; she adapts quickly and effectively to very new, difficult and dangerous situations. But at the same time she wrestles with the basic urges she experiences as a zombie; so that at the same moment she feels enormous affection for her teacher, Miss Justineau, but also wants to devour her flesh.

The feeling-the bullying, screaming hunger-goes on for a long time … It’s still scary, a rebellion of her body against her mind, as though she’s Pandora wanting to open the box and it doesn’t matter how many times she’s been told not to, she’s just been built so she has to, and she can’t make herself stop (p. 83). 

She wrestles with a wild animal, and the animal is her. So she knows she’s going to lose (p. 115). 

In spite of her fears, Melanie has to ask. “Why? Why am I not to blame?” Miss J hesitates. “Because of your nature,” she says. 

The story of Pandora is something that also features heavily in the story. Melanie has lived most of her sentient life in a cell, and has no knowledge of the outside world. She sees it through stories and things she’s learnt in the classroom; but sometimes, those things give more insight than you’d expect.

[SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending]. 

The story of Pandora’s box is one of those things; it underpins the final scene of the novel. I found the ending stayed with me – it came out of nowhere, and it was a fascinating reversal. Melanie makes sure that her beloved Miss Justineau is safe, inside an airtight bus, and then she unleashes devastation on the world – opening her very own Pandora’s box. The virus will spread, and transform humanity into something else; and the existing humans will become irrelevant.

It’s an ending that’s similar in some ways to the wrap-up of I am Legend, with the ‘other’ now the normal. It’s a nice inversion, and isn’t signalled too obviously; if anything, it felt a little sudden.

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