The Girl with All the Gifts
by M. R. Carey
Of all the things to be startlingly, physically terrified of, zombies is probably one of the stupidest. (Alligators, my mother’s worst fear, at least exist in large enough quantities not that far from where she lives.) But something the opposite of magical happens at the intersection of an overactive imagination and anxiety, and you end up spending high school sleeping facing the door just in case. (This was after sleeping with my face to the window in middle school, when alien abduction was much more of a concern.) But it’s eased in adulthood. I remain petrified of the things, but in an exhausted kind of way. The last great nightmare I had about zombies involved gauging whether or not I could make it to my car from the grocery store in the zombie apocalypse. “Oh, great,” I though to myself, as a errant zombie shambled through the lot.
So it’s a testament to my strange love of The Girl… titles that I picked up The Girl with All the Gifts. (I like to think of these titles in mortal combat with all those The [Occupation]’s [Female Relation] titles. Naturally, the former prevail, since they don’t identify their protagonist in relation to the men in their lives.) But I’m very glad I did. Despite my very limited exposure to zombies as a genre (more than your average Jane, less than your average geek), this is the first zombie novel I’ve ever read that posits a logical end to the zombie apocalypse.
Despite the almost too twee nature of calling zombies “hungries,” M. R. Carey has almost reinvented the viral zombie by simply thinking it through logically. The virus that’s swept across Carey’s Britain doesn’t simply turn people into twitching, cannibalistic hordes: it’s using them. To tell you anymore would be to spoil the surprise, and this is a novel you want to go in cold for.
Which, of course, makes reviewing it while preserving that surprise for the reader quite a challenge. (Although, as you can see by my review of Maleficent, I’m happy to spoil when the content is more important than the delivery.)
Suffice it to say, The Girl with All the Gifts derives its greatest moments from Carey’s keen appreciation and familiarity with zombies. This is hardly a surprise—M. R. Carey is a veil-thin pseudonym for Mike Carey, author of the equally thoughtful comic The Unwritten. Both this novel and that comic are technically deconstructions, but neither go about making their point with the same marrow-melting cynicism as, say, The Magicians. (I should probably finish that series, but the ending to that novel is just so perfectly ambiguous! I want to preserve it.) Instead, they take the source material and run with it to a variety of logical conclusions, finding the organic matter hidden under tropes. Tropes are, after all, shorthand. Shorthand can be useful, but sometimes it’s best to write these things out.
This approach is, in essence, the art of adaptation. Carey has some lovely words to say on the subject in a blog post for his publisher from last December:
There’s one particular pleasure, though, that you can only experience as a writer in multiple media – the pleasure of adaptation. I’ve been lucky enough to be commissioned several times to do comic book adaptations of novels and movies, and once to do a movie adaptation of another writer’s novel. In each case, I had a blast.
With the story structure already in place, the creative process and the creative challenges are very different from the ones you face when you’re making something entirely new. What you have to do is to dismantle the story – break it down into its component parts – and then think about what each part is doing. I’m not just talking about plot points, I mean characters arcs, themes, even key lines of dialogue. You do this because it’s not possible, ever, simply to move a story into another medium scene by scene, the way the town of Springfield was moved in that Simpsons episode by putting all the houses on wheels, driving them a mile down the road, and putting them down again in the same configuration of streets.
So everyone in the cast, from the titular girl, Melanie, to the grim military man to the hungries, is nuanced and well-fleshed out. (“Freedom!” she bellowed, waving the flag of Punlandia.) Each plot point, from the base we begin at to our survivors’ trudging through the post-apocalyptic wilderness. But its best strength is Melanie herself, whose gifts exceed anything I expected at the beginning. Her ferocious love for her teacher and her equally fierce belief in her personhood is a powerful thing when married to her physical abilities. The chapters rotate viewpoint characters, but it’s Melanie’s that are the best written, capturing both her childish logic and the weary knowledge of someone forced to grow up beyond her years.
As Carey’s post at Orbit states, there’s a film version in the works told entirely through Melanie’s eyes. Given the fact that it was written concurrently with the novel, it’ll be an interesting comparison study. I hope that it’ll be just as powerful and gripping as the novel.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.