The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey, is a delightful twist on the zombie apocalypse genre. Both disturbing and hopeful, the story and the characters get under your skin then gnaw their way back out.
Nearly every zombie story these days follows the rules of the Romero / Night of the Living Dead universe; slow, shambling creatures, all dead rise, and no other form than rotting. The Girl with All the Gifts breaks that mold, and it is refreshing.
The ‘hungries’ in Carey’s novel move more like velociraptors than shambling corpses. They smell their human prey, triggered to action by the stench of pheromones. They are animated by a terrifying mutation of Ophiocordyceps, the fungus which is a thing in the real world that turns ants into zombies.
The story starts some 20 years after civilization ended in an event referred to as The Breakdown. At least one heavily fortified city survives on the coast of England, stocked with food and fire power. A few scientists remain, still looking for a cure to the disease that ended the world.
A scientific and military outpost has been established well away from the settlement to study something strange that has been observed out in the hungry-infested world. There are children out there, infected with the fungus, but not rotting away, in fact growing and thinking and learning. They appear to be pockets of feral humanity, twisted by evolution into something that has survived and thrived in the new world.
The military has managed to capture and imprison two or three dozen of these children. They are managed with obsessive and precise protocols, designed and managed by Sergeant Parks, a seasoned soldier with a healthy fear of the hungries.
Dr. Caldwell, the head scientist, does not see them as children, but as things to be studied, test subjects to be dissected at the end of the experiment. As part of her grand experiment, she arranges to have the children schooled and socialized. Her view does not change as they learn to speak, to read, to show signs of creative thought and problem solving.
The teacher Helen Justineau is the only person on the base who is able to see and hear the humanity in these children. She reads them stories, brings flowers for the children to touch and experience, and decorates their cells with pictures cut from ancient magazines.
This whole situation is made all the more disturbing by telling it from the point of view of Melanie, the smartest and sweetest of the children. She is not aware of what she is, and knows the world entirely through Miss Justineau’s lessons and stories. She is unaware that every adult she has ever met is constantly smeared with a goo that blocks their pheromone scent, to prevent triggering hunger for human flesh in the children. All she knows is that she desperately wants human touch and has never had it.
The story takes off when the base is attacked, resulting in Melanie, Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Parks, and a young private fleeing for their lives through hungry-infested country. During their journey, Melanie learns and must cope with what she truly is, while Dr. Caldwell descends into fever-induced madness. Justineau and Sgt. Parks have their own arcs, wrestling with the humanity of the monster-child traveling with them.
M. R. Carey frames all of this beautifully with short, fast moving point of view chapters, showing difficult questions the characters wrestle with, rather than lingering over fluffy internal dialogue. The pacing of the story pulled me in and wouldn’t let go, making for a fast and very intense read.
The Girl with All the Gifts is genre-crossing science fiction horror, and the science fiction elements of the book are fantastic. Dr. Caldwell is a proper mad scientist, desperate to explain her discoveries to anyone sitting still. This reveals all sorts of tidbits about the fungus that ended the world, in a way that I think would satisfy many sci-fi fans.
In a zombie apocalypse world being repopulated with mutant hybrids, Dr. Caldwell truly is the most disturbing element of the entire story. Her obsession with slicing up the brains of sentient, undead children is utterly macabre. She is mad, and wields the cold logic of a trained scientist like a scalpel, slicing through the moral protestations of the other humans. Once, civilization stopped the doctor from becoming a monster. In this world of post-apocalypse, there are no such restraints upon her. Dr. Caldwell’s point-of-view chapters always left me feeling uneasy, sometimes even nauseous at her thought processes.
Overall, The Girl with All the Gifts is a refreshing take on the zombie genre and its tropes.
I was immensely satisfied with the book’s ending, and the journey to get there was a wild, emotional ride. Questioning what it is to be human, this story is likely to haunt readers long after the book is finished.