The Girl With All the Gifts
by M.R. Carey
Review by Drew Bittner
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316278157
Date: 10 June 2014 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Interview with Author / Show Official Info /
In The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey shows us the world of a little girl inside a fortress, in the aftermath of a bygone global pandemic. A fungus has made the leap from ants to humans and laid waste to civilization. Years after the devastation, a tiny remnant huddles inside a fort and struggles to understand their true enemy--and their interface is children like Melanie who seem to retain their humanity despite being infected.
It is twenty years after the Breakdown. The world is full of the hungries, with pockets of human survivors--most of them the lawless "junkers"--struggling to endure. Melanie and her classmates stay in a fortified military base where Miss Justineau and other teachers assess their mental faculties and Dr. Caldwell tries to understand why these children seem partially immune to the fungus's effects. Because make no mistake, they are infected.
Despite security rules to the contrary, Miss Justineau sees the infected children more and more as, well, children. As their teacher, she sees the affection Melanie especially has for her. When Melanie is betrayed by her true nature, however, and tries to bite Miss Justineau, both women come to some harsh realizations.
Dr. Caldwell, on the other hand, is perhaps the last scientist on Earth capable of understanding the fungus and its capabilities. Her work has left her cold and ruthless, incapable of feeling anything other than bitter resentment and frustration.
The Sergeant (also known as Eddie Parks) at first is a grim and angry figure, who routinely insults and even mistreats the children. By turns, however, his true self comes into focus and he must balance the crumbling discipline of his troops with the very real danger of junkers prowling the camp's borders.
Before long, these four (along with a soldier) are left without a home and must try to reach the last enclave of civilization in England. Although Melanie is in no danger from the roaming hungries, the others are in terrible trouble--with only the discovery of a long-missing mobile science lab to give them hope.
Thing is, that hope may cost Melanie what's left of her life.
Carey has written a true gem in The Girl With All the Gifts, creating a character in Melanie who will live with the reader long after the last page. She is brilliant, calculating population densities and projecting population growth to pass the time in her cell, and her passion for Greek myth is endearing. She wants to be a titan or a god to protect Miss Justineau from the threatening Sergeant, until she comes to understand him a bit better.
Miss Justineau is a humanist who sees the chance of redemption in her students. She realizes that Melanie is capable of self-control and love; surely that's worth something.
Not to Dr. Caldwell, unfortunately. In her, Carey has created an archetype of the heartless scientist, one who will destroy a world to find the answer to a question and vindicate her own ego. For all that she is brilliant, it becomes clear that genius is not what will save humanity. It is heart.
And this book has that in abundance.
The setting of the story--from the school-bunker to the horrific fungiscape of England's ruined towns and suburbs--is oozing with macabre, even melancholy desolation. Melanie's sojourn into a gray wasteland is bleak and quietly terrifying.
It is perhaps odd to think of a novelist of Carey's wide experience as having a "breakout" novel. He's written seven novels already and dozens of comic books, as well as working in television and movies most recently. Yet, this book may be the one that breaks him into the public eye in the biggest way, because it has reach and appeal on so many levels.
If it does reap him recognition, it is more than well deserved. Not only has he told an amazing story with masterful skill, Carey has introduced a character and a concept into a well-traveled trope that brings an entirely new kind of horror to readers. It is not what you expect, it is far more. And readers of all sorts, not just fans of horror in particular, should be reading this one.
This is what readers want when they say that they want something that is both different and brilliant.