The Reader Who Knew Too Little: Cassie-la Wanders Blissfully Through “The Girl with All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts MR CareyThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (Galley)
Release Date: June 10, 2014
Genre: Fiction, science fiction, horror, zombies, post-apocalyptic, I wish I could forget that ending and experience it all over again
Rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Summary: Melanie is not your average 10-year-old girl, and not just because for as long as she can remember she has lived inside a military base as a devastating apocalyptic zombie-esque plague has destroyed life in England. Melanie doesn’t remember life before the Breakdown, having not been born yet, but she is aware of the existence of the ravenous hungries who threaten human life as well as the day to day minutiae that has determined her own childhood. But is this new way of life even living at all, and who would miss the world that we leave behind?

I would be very hard pressed to talk about The Girl with All the Gifts without giving away all the equally fun and horrifying things you will discover through reading the various POVs in the story. Luckily enough, I went into the story knowing only that it was a science fiction tale about a 10-year-old girl named Melanie who is blessed with a number of gifts. It was for this reason that I made some very wrong assumptions about the novel, including that there was some sort of superhero element involved. Oh how naive I was. I blame Joss Whedon.

With that said, I would highly recommend reading this fantastic book without knowing anything about the plot, the characters or the themes. You’ll thank me later. For those of you who don’t give a fig about the experience and want to learn more about the zombies and the ideas they represent, you can read on and eliminate all the fun from your life. You have been warned.

At its core, The Girl with All the Gifts is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel about the human struggle for survival.

However, as you continue to explore Melanie’s world, you quickly discover that it is so much more than that. It’s a story that looks into the future destruction of modern human civilization in much the same way that untold civilizations before us have faltered and fallen.

Basically, in the world of The Girl with All the Gifts, zombies are created after humans are taken over by an invading fungal colony known as Ophiocordyceps, who spread asexually through the spit and blood of their hosts. To combat these zombies (called hungries), humans wear a chemical spray called e-blocker to block their endocrine sweat, which hungries can sense. They can also locate body heat in the dark and are particularly fast movers when hunting prey, making them an especially dangerous zombie menace.

The main POV character Melanie cannot remember life before the apocalyptic event known as the Breakdown because she wasn’t alive yet. Instead, she lives inside a military base outside of London, which keeps herself and the other children who are there safe from the hungries. Not to mention protects the variety of teachers and military personnel who also live on base and oversee the day to day operations of their child charges.

While in class (which Melanie goes to every Monday through Friday), she is obsessed with her occasional teacher Miss Justineau, who she develops a crush on for her intellect, kindness and love for her students. While their story starts off seemingly like the novel Matilda (with Melanie in the role of Matilda and Helen Justineau as Miss Honey), things slowly start taking on darker turns and eventually morphs into something resembling Matilda meets The Lord of the Flies when all our morally grey heroes and possible villains are forced to go an adventure together.

Not only do they have to deal with hungries on this road trip, but they also have to face the human enemies known as the junkers, survivalists who chose not to live in refugee camps like Beacon, a nearby city surrounded by moats, a minefield and the sea to keep out hungries. Unfortunately for them, Melanie and company have also landed on the radar of a threat that is much, much worse.

Despite being an action-filled novel, The Girl with All the Gifts is very character driven, and what a cast of characters it is. There’s the child loving Helen Justineau who is harboring a deep dark secret, the tough as nails Sergeant Eddie Parks who is secretly guarding a kind heart and the crazed mad scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell, who believes she has been tasked with saving humanity. On the surface they may sound like two dimensional caricatures, but they grow and morph into fully fleshed out, complicated human beings.

Since this is at its heart a post-apocalyptic novel (it’s been 20 years since the Breakdown) the characters explore themes like their impending doom and the possible end of the human race through the lens of the ancient Greeks, a strong civilization who was eventually overtaken by the Roman empire as they took over Egypt, leaving behind monuments to their own existence.

These same sentiments are echoed in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” — about the now gone Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II and his monuments — found in the collection Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue. Also that one “Breaking Bad” promo. In The Girl with All the Gifts, Rosalind is the name of a mobile lab created by the government (named after DNA and polio virus researcher Rosalind Franklin) and Miss Justineau is actually Helen Justineau, who ends up residing inside Rosalind, a forgotten monument to human survival. Rosalind and Helen. Coincidence? Maybe. But probably not.

There’s also another mobile research vehicle which had been dubbed Charles Darwin, a nod to another theme of the novel: evolution. Particularly the evolution of the hungries, the fungal colony which created them, the evolution of relationships (spectacularly demonstrated through the one between Miss Justineau and Sergeant Parks) and the evolution we undergo in ourselves as we grow up.

Melanie does the most growth in terms of her character arc throughout the novel and finds herself obsessed with the ancient Greek myths, particularly Pandora, who opened that metaphorical box and released all kinds of horrors upon the world. Pandora, whose name literally means “the girl with all the gifts.” It comes as no surprise then that Melanie experiences her own “Hero’s Journey,” bringing about one hell of a shocking and a surprising ending.

-The rich and intriguing world that M.R. Carey creates
-The cast of characters that inhabit this world and the fully-fleshed out back stories that they inhabit
-That one OTP that you know is coming and you can’t help but hope for

-Science portions can be a little too science-y and action moments a tad too action-y for my tastes

“In an age of rust, she comes up stainless steel.”
“… What must have seemed like an ordinary morning, in a world that nobody thought could end.”
“… It might not matter after all. To have the race that built these mausoleums lie in them finally, quiet and resigned, and crumble into dust. Who’d miss us?
“… The horror of the unknown is more frightening than any horror you can understand…”

Fun side note: author M.R. Carey (AKA Mike Carey) is a comic book author whose credits include The Unwritten, X-Men, Lucifer and Hellblazer, so if you want a great novel that reads like a comic book, this is the prose option for you!

4 thoughts on “The Reader Who Knew Too Little: Cassie-la Wanders Blissfully Through “The Girl with All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey

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