Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book 240: The Girl With All The Gifts

"In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a quetion that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation."

Dates read: June 8-12, 2018

Rating: 8/10

My husband plays a lot of video games. When I tell people this, they often make a vaguely sympathetic face, but as far as I'm concerned, he's an adult and he can get entertainment however he'd like. I like books and movies. He likes sports and video games. Neither one has more inherent merit than the other. Anyways, the point here is that since I'm around when he's playing games, I often watch and while not all of it particularly interests me, some of the games tell really interesting, multilayered stories, like Mass Effect or The Last of Us. The latter, in particular, is a really engrossing experience centered in the bond that develops between a young woman and a parental figure during a post-zombie apocalypse scenario. It's honestly a great piece of media and I see frequent requests on book recommendation sites looking for a book like it.

Zombie apocalypse stories are, at their heart, about the fear of social breakdown. A zombie doesn't have the internal struggle to contain their own demons that a vampire or werewolf does. At least not traditionally. But M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts isn't a usual zombie story. I guess it's technically a spoiler to say it's about zombies at all, but it's been out for long enough that most people are already familiar with the idea. It introduces us to Melanie, a girl undergoing a strange sort of schooling. Some of it is familiar: there's a class, a rotating group of teachers (Ms. Justineau is Melanie's particular favorite), lessons. But the children, when not in school, are locked in cells and collected for class by armed guards (like the harsh Sgt. Parks) who move them into special wheelchairs that restrict their movements at gunpoint. And the members of the class are sometimes wheeled into a medical lab, run by the ruthlessly efficient Dr. Caldwell, never to return.

That Melanie and her classmates are zombies (or "hungries", as they're called in the world of the book) is obvious fairly early on. But they aren't the typical kind: more like the vampire or werewolf, they're conscious, self-aware, capable of learning and some level of restraint. Obviously this isn't normal zombie behavior, not even in this world, and the lives of the students are being studied in the desperate hope that finding what makes them different could help lead to a vaccine for the fungal infection underlying the transformation into brainless and violent automatons. All of that is interrupted when the base is attacked by the regular kind of zombies, along with renegade humans that roam the wilderness because they refused to quarantine themselves in cities like most people. Melanie, Justineau, Parks, Caldwell, and a young soldier escape the chaos and set off for the city, but the world outside has dangers they might not be fully prepared for.

The heart of the story is the bond that forms between Melanie and Helen Justineau over the course of the book. Justineau is fond of Melanie from her time in the classroom, and Melanie all but worships the only person she's ever met who treats her with the slightest bit of kindness. As they're forced into closer quarters and more dire circumstances, that connection deepens and they become fiercely protective of each other in their own ways. The ways that Caldwell and Parks change (or don't, significantly) in their feelings about her in their turn reveals their true characters as well. There's an interesting, compelling adventure story with some quality world-building, but the book is really based in the relationships between people, how they view others, how they cope with the tremendous strain of living in a world so completely decimated by the unexpected.

My criticisms are mostly fairly minor: I think the book is a bit too long, some of the exposition is a bit too clunky, I wanted more of the past life of the characters to fill them out even further. I did appreciate that while the suspense level gets pretty tense, the gore level is relatively minimal for a zombie book (I'm not a fan of gore but found that what was there felt un-gratuitous). That being said, I don't know that I think this is a book that would be a match for everyone...if you're not into post-apocalyptic narratives, really can't deal with any gore at all, or want a super thriller, this probably won't be your preferred reading experience. But if you're willing to experiment a little with a book that might be outside your usual comfort zone and think a smart, character-driven take on zombies could be interesting, I'd definitely encourage you to read it. I liked it much more than I thought I would!

One year ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Disgrace

Three years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Four years ago, I was reading: The Six Wives of Henry VIII


  1. This was an excellent review.

    I recommend checking out the film version, too, if you have the time for that. It was quite well done.

    1. Thank you! I knew there was a movie, but hadn't heard much about it, but with a positive rec I'll definitely check it out!

  2. I really loved this book. I also second the recommendation for the movie, it's a strong adaptation!

    Our household is similar to yours - K enjoys both video games and sports (and video games are a lot more available recently than sports!) and I often watch while he's playing and while I'm doing my own thing. A lot of the games he's played over the years have very engaging stories. The original Mass Effect series and Horizon Zero Dawn have been some of my favorites to observe.

    1. I really liked Horizon Zero Dawn too! And now with two positive recs I will have to make the movie a priority to watch!

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