>>Finally got around to it: January 2015
After Sergeant says “Transit”, Melanie gets dressed, quickly, in the white shift that hangs on the hook next to her door, a pair of white trousers from the receptacle in the wall, and the white pumps lined up under her bed. Then she sits down in the wheelchair at the foot of her bed, like she’s been taught to do. She puts her hands on the arms of the chair and her feet on the footrests. She closes her eyes and waits. She counts while she waits. The highest she’s ever had to count is two thousand five hundred and twenty-six; the lowest is one thousand nine hundred and one.
When the key turns in the door, she stops counting and opens her eyes. Sergeant comes in with his gun and points it at her. Then two of Sergeant’s people come in and tighten and buckle the straps of the chair around Melanie’s wrists and ankles. There’s also a strap for her neck; they tighten that one last of all, when her hands and feet are fastened up all the way, and they always do it from behind. The strap is designed so they never have to put their hands in front of Melanie’s face. Melanie sometimes says, “I won’t bite.” She says it as a joke, but Sergeant’s people never laugh. Sergeant did once, the first time she said it, bit it was a nasty laugh. And then he said, “Like we’d ever give you the chance, sugar plum.”
M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts presents something a little different—a zombie apocalypse with actual hope for the future.
It might seem like a small thing, but really it’s not. Sure, lots of zombie narratives are centred around finding a cure for the disease (whatever its cause), or getting a small, ragtag group of people to safety so that the human race can start again. But those are temporary sorts of hope—they ignore many of the realities associated with having a world nearly, if not completely overrun by the living dead.
Carey’s hope, however, comes not from conquering the great evil or finding an all-powerful panacea, but in adaptation and evolution.
The novel picks up twenty years after “the Breakdown.” A mutated fungal spore, Ophiocoryceps, has wiped out much of the population, replacing what were once living, breathing, free-thinking humans with “hungries,” a type of zombie more closely resembling the fungus-sprouting undead analogues found in the video game The Last of Us. (Incidentally, the infected in The Last of Us are also as a result of coryceps, and share many similar traits and idiosyncrasies with the not-so-shambling hungries of this novel.)
At a military base called Hotel Echo, thirty miles north of London, a young woman named Helen Justineau, a developmental psychologist masquerading as a teacher, instructs a small class of children—girls and boys, all around the age of ten. Among these is a girl named Melanie, who’s very interested in Greek mythology, and in Miss Justineau, whom she looks up to. Melanie, like the others in her class, is a hungry—but not just any type of hungry; she’s a “high-functioning” hungry, capable of cognition, emotional attachment, and self-awareness.
But the children’s education is merely part of a larger experiment to better understand the hungries, particularly the more advanced ones, in hopes of finding that aforementioned panacea. Spearheading this research is Caroline Caldwell. Caldwell is Justineau’s polar opposite—a seemingly emotionless “ends justify the means” type, who she sees the children not as they are but as stepping stones to something greater, something with the potential to save them all.
Positioned between the ethical extremes of both Justineau and Caldwell is Sergeant Parks, a career military sort who oversees security at the base, including safe transport of the hungries from their cells to their classrooms. Parks is perhaps the most interesting character in the book, aside from Melanie herself. Though he begins as a sort of gruff, necessary evil, he grows in unexpected ways, and as a result exhibits a great deal more personality and depth of character than either Justineau or Caldwell, who are both rather dogmatic in their perspectives (not without their reasons, but still).
The story at the heart of The Girl With All the Gifts is not that of the hungries currently taking over the world, or even the junkers—humans still alive on the outside, scavenging for survival Mad Max-style—that kill and take what they want. It’s very much about the ethical debate between Justineau, who views the children—Melanie most of all—as innocent victims worthy of survival, and Caldwell, who sees them as specimens dominated by an infectious fungus and primed for dissection. As she at one point tells Justineau, “When you walk into that classroom, you think you’re talking to children. But you’re not, Helen. You’re talking to the thing that killed the children.”
When one day both junkers and hungries manage to overrun the compound, Justineau, Caldwell, Parks, and Melanie (along with a very “green” soldier who more or less exists to be future cannon fodder) escape and are forced to work together as they make for Beacon some distance away, where it’s hoped they will find safety or some form of salvation. And with Justineau and Caldwell on different ends of the spectrum, and Parks vacillating between the two, Melanie, the titular Pandora, is relied upon to help guide them through a number of life-threatening situations.
Were it not for Melanie, there would be little to differentiate The Girl With All the Gifts from other zombie-style narratives. She is the fulcrum around which the ethical debates swing. Though at first she seems like little more than an overly astute child occasionally requiring Hannibal Lecter-type restraints, Melanie’s growth, as she becomes aware of what’s happened to the world as well as her place in it, exhibits the hope on which Carey’s entire narrative hinges.
Because there is no cure—not really. There’s no hope for humanity’s salvation. Melanie, like the other high-functioning hungries in her class, is not the anomaly she is first presented as; rather she is an evolution of the disease responsible for wiping out most of humanity. The high-functioning hungries represent balance in nature—the idea that what’s meant to prevail or break free will, and that there may be no stopping it. (If Jurassic Park taught us anything, it’s that life will find a way.) Caldwell, in this sense, represents a disease of a different sort, clinging not to a healthy host but an evolving host that no longer requires it. The hope in this novel isn’t that humanity will prevail, but that the definition of humanity will change. And while there will be blood shed along the way, eventually equilibrium will be reached.
On a technical level, the book is a fast-paced, energetic read, with short chapters punctuated by a hefty balance of action and mystery. Additionally, alternating voices and styles of writing keep the narrative feeling fresh, which is essential when Caldwell and Justineau continually slump back into their respective arguments, which I feel were hammered home a bit too much.
To that note, my investment in the narrative faltered a bit once they arrived at Rosie the roving lab. It’s at this point that Parks is revealed as the more even keeled amongst the group—he sees Melanie more for what she is than what he assumed her to be, and grows to trust her. Meanwhile, Justineau becomes as single-minded as Caldwell, and as a result turns inward and exhibits a selfishness that not only jeopardizes them all, but is also borderline abusive to Melanie. She ignores Melanie’s own pleas to be left alone, as the young hungry is being driven mad by Justineau’s scent but must restrain herself from devouring her teacher and friend. Justineau’s guilt over past indiscretions eventually overrides her ability to see what’s right; she claims to care for Melanie, but is really so focused on assuaging her own guilt that she will put the girl through hell. By the end, I found I no longer cared what happened to Justineau, as there was little in her I found worthy of saving.
The novel ends, however, on a strangely uplifting note—that humanity 2.0, which Melanie represents, will succeed where their forebears failed, and will thrive not in tandem with the humanity of old, but atop its remains. I’ll admit that given my distaste by the end for both Caldwell and Justineau, and the utter selflessness exhibited by Melanie throughout, I was quite satisfied by this ending and the knowledge that the zombies will thrive where we ourselves failed.
No, not knowledge. Hope.