I came to The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey’s zombie novel, excited but wary. Carey is half of the team behind the Unwritten series of graphic novels, one of the best series to come out in recent years. He also wrote the Sandman spin-off Lucifer and several issues of Hellblazer. Hence my excitement.
But a graphic novel, even one as prose-filled as The Unwritten can sometimes be, is an entirely different medium from a traditional novel. It’s like asking a painter to sculpt or a drummer to pick up a guitar. The similarities are there, but the artist can’t rely on his usual effects.
Coupled with my uncertainties about the medium, was its topic: yet another zombie book. After World War Z and The Walking Dead, I wasn’t sure we really need another zombie survival story. Hence my wariness.
And yet, from the get-go The Girl With All the Gifts does not disappoint. Carey takes the now wearisome zombie trope, and true to its mythos, raises it up anew. He moves sideways, ducking and weaving through the dusty labyrinth of clichés and already-been-dones. These are not your average zombies.
The story centers on Melanie, a ten-year-old girl, living in zombie-plagued England. She attends a special school, where she is both pupil and test subject. Military men escort her between her class and cell, and the only source of light in her life is her teacher, Miss Justineau, who takes pity on the students, reads them Greek mythology, and once, in a brave and intimate act, even reached out and stroked Melanie’s hair. Melanie and her classmates are the key to the survival of the human race.
Carey relies on the now almost-expected explanation of infection for the zombies’ cause. But he digs deeper into this conceit, riffing off of the actual fungus Ophiocordyceps, a tropical fungus that infects ants and turns them into automatons, leading them to latch onto plants and stay there until their deaths. In The Girl With All the Gifts, the fungus has transformed, affecting humans and causing them to crave flesh. Carey’s descriptions are fantastic—gruesome and plausible:
Caldwell steps into the room and circles the infected man slowly and warily. The marks of violence he bears are, she sees now, very old. The blood from the wounds has mostly dried and flaked away. Each is rimmed with an embroidery of fine grey threads, the visible sign that Ophiocordyceps has made its home within him. There’s grey fuzz on his lips, too, and in the corners of his eyes.”
Carey allows our protagonist, Melanie, to be young and naive but grants her a genius-level intellect that enables her to move apace with the plot. Her imagination is bold yet child-like as she dreams of the stories she reads in school. But it his her inherent kindness in the face of the unrelenting chaos and violence around her that make her a rich character. She is at times wildly sentimental and others pragmatic, but never dispassionately so. Indeed, her pragmatism stems from her love of Miss Justineau and the other children.
While the book remains cerebral until the end, it balances the action this genre craves, moving at a steady clip and always intriguing. I found myself wanting to keep listening as much for the characters themselves, to hear their thoughts and inner struggles as much as I wanted to follow their perils through zombie hordes and determined villains. The setting migrates from the rigid halls of Melanie’s compound out into the abandoned English countryside, where the typical hordes of both zombies and dangerous survivors roam. Carey, however, keeps the story anything but predictable.
In the end, Carey wraps up the story, and the zombie epidemic with a darkly satisfying bow. Joss Whedon called The Girl With All the Gifts “Heartfelt, remorseless, and painfully human . . . as fresh as it is terrifying. A jewel,” which is no exaggeration. The last minutes are eye-widening in their twists but I cannot image a better conclusion, as wrought as it may be.
The narrator, Finty Williams, brings the perfect amount of poise to the book. Her (to my American ears) proper Queen’s English, sets the tone for the story, particularly in the classroom setting in the beginning. Williams is the daughter of Judi Dench and Michael Williams, and her classical training is imminently apparent.
Overall, I found The Girl With All the Gifts to be a delightful change of pace in an increasingly dull genre. From it’s focus on female characters, to its creepy descriptions, to its characters chilling decisions, its depth and conviction never wavers. If authors continue to produce zombie novels, and I’m sure they will, they’ll have another one to live up after this one.
Listen to a clip about Melanie reflecting on a violent encounter and learning to accept her situation:
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