Melanie can’t remember a time before she came to the school, but she doesn’t mind. She’s safe here, locked behind a thick metal door at the bottom of a flight of steps, with her few classmates and their teachers. They’re protected from the world outside, where humanity has withdrawn into the survivors’ outpost of Beacon on the south coast, and the countryside has been taken over by gangs of ‘hungries’ infected by the plague that spread during the Breakdown. There’s comfort in the children’s routine: the people who strap them into their chairs each day before taking them to class; the Saturdays locked in their cells; the Sundays with the foul chemical showers. This is all that Melanie has known. But things are about to change, and Melanie will find herself forced to revisit all her certainties as she – and a small group of adults – find themselves alone outside.
If I’d read reviews or summaries of The Girl with All the Gifts beforehand, I wouldn’t have wanted to read it. I really don’t do zombie apocalypses. And so I’d have decided, quite firmly, that this wasn’t for me, and would have missed out on a surprisingly smart and thought-provoking novel. Carey isn’t interested in cheap thrills. His characters may be taking part in the conventional race against time to get back to safety, with hordes of the not-quite-dead snapping at their heels, but the story is actually driven by ethical and philosophical questions. How do we define humanity? To what extent is science morally responsible for its test subjects? When is it right to make sacrifices for the greater good?
It is best, I think, to know as little as possible about this book before you go into it, so I’m going to keep this post short. I don’t want to give away any inadvertent spoilers. What I will say is that the imagination behind it – the concept and world-building – is quite extraordinary. It transforms a potentially sensationalist thriller into a discussion of responsibility, affection and simple human decency: much of the drama doesn’t come from blood-drenched attacks (though there is that too), but from the interaction between our characters, each of whom has their own very different agenda. Many of them also take turns with narrative viewpoints, each of which feels thoroughly ‘real’: Melanie herself; her beloved teacher Miss Justineau; Sergeant Parks, who commands the soldiers at the base where Melanie lives; and Dr Caldwell, the methodical and detached neuroscientist who believes she’s close to a breakthrough about the nature of the plague and the possibility of a cure. Each of them has their own very distinct voice, and it’s through their gradually interweaving stories that we learn more about this wretched, blighted remaining fragment of England and what has happened there.
I stress that: England. According to Hollywood, all apocalypses or plagues take place in America, so it’s hugely refreshing to read a novel that sets a dramatic event like this in more familiar surroundings. Carey makes it clear, though, that the entire world has been affected (or infected) to the same extent. Pacy and compelling, this is the kind of book that’s easy to read and hard to put down. I’m rather surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I have, but I suppose that goes to show I could do with revisiting my own prejudices against certain genres. There’s certainly much food for thought here. It becomes telling, perhaps, that Melanie wishes she was called Pandora; there are marked similarities between them, which I would detail if I wasn’t afraid of giving you spoilers.
You may already be aware of the film that’s been made, based on the book – thankfully, still set in England, though with the addition of Glenn Close for a bit of over-the-pond star power. I probably won’t watch it myself, because I think some of the scenes would be too gory for me to handle in a visual context, but I’d be interested to know what other people think. And Carey has also just released another story set in the same world – about ten years before The Girl with all the Gifts, I think – called The Boy on the Bridge. I’ll probably get round to reading that at some point, in the hope of finding out a little more about Carey’s eerily almost-familiar dystopia.