This review contains spoilers.
The post-apocalyptic world of M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts feels eerily similar, metaphorically speaking, to our own. Civilisation has been devastated by the emergence of a strain of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – the parasitic fungus that causes ants to crawl to the tops of trees and spore suicidally – that is capable of taking over human brains and turning them into “hungries”, essentially zombies who, like all zombies, are driven by an insatiable longing for human flesh. The novel centres on Melanie, a child being held in a military facility for reasons that we intuit much earlier than she does (she and her compatriots are restrained at all times, their guards smell strongly of chemicals, every so often a child disappears and does not return). She and the other children at the facility attend lessons about the world as it was – the fact that this world no longer exists is another thing the reader intuits early on – and Melanie, ferociously smart, sensitive, empathetic, quickly comes to love the teacher who seems least afraid of her, Miss Justineau (who is, incidentally, a Black woman).
Much of the early part of the book is powered by the gap between Melanie’s hopes for her future and what we know about her origins and the purpose of her presence in the facility. The scientists there are studying hungry children like Melanie who have retained their intelligence and capacity for reasoning in the hope that they’ll find a cure for the infection; they have no interest in the wellbeing of the children beyond that, and indeed often dissect them to learn more. Halfway through the novel, however, the military facility is attacked by hungries and junkers (uninfected humans who have rejected what remains of civilisation), and a small band of survivors, including Melanie and Miss Justineau, set out on a dangerous journey across southern England to find Beacon, the last human city in Britain.
This is an emptied-out world, then; a world devastated by mindless, irrational consumption, by a bottomless hunger that renders its sufferers hollowed-out husks of themselves. (Some of the novel’s most poignant scenes involve hungries who appear to retain memories of their former lives, performing repetitive actions – singing old songs, pushing an empty pram down the street – that are evacuated of their original meanings; the postmodern condition, anyone?) Seen in that light, the questions the novel asks about monstrousness – is Melanie, with her intelligence, her classical education, her capacity for deep feeling and self-sacrifice, the real monster here? What about Caldwell, the scientist who thinks nothing of vivisecting sentient children in order to save humanity? – and about how we go on in such a world, how we cope as human beings, come to feel uncomfortably pertinent. With what remains of our society as we see it in the novel – the military base, the increasingly authoritarian city of Beacon – becoming less and less hospitable to the things that make life meaningful, love, joy, connection, in favour of simple survival, the novel’s ending suggests that the only way forward is radical change, the wholesale destruction of the old world and a new start for humanity.
I don’t know that it is wholly a successful novel; or, rather, it is very successful at what it intends to do, which is telling a smart, original zombie tale (not a small achievement in such an overly saturated market) that asks some pressing questions about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in, without overly challenging the conventions of its genre and marketing category. In other words, it’s a conventional SF thriller, and it’s not aiming to go beyond that. Its secondary characters – namely Caldwell and the two soldiers, Private Gallagher and Sergeant Parks, who accompany the little band of survivors on their journey to Beacon – are, as A.S. Moser points out, rather two-dimensional and familiar; the relationship that develops between Miss Justineau and Sergeant Parks is, similarly, exactly the sort of relationship that always develops between male and female leads in this kind of story; the various set pieces that the party stumble into in the latter half of the novel, the house in which they’re surrounded by hordes of hungries, the scene where one person wanders off alone and Bad Things Happen, the descriptions of desolate London and wilderness-claimed Home County farmland – all this feels reheated and predictable.
These aren’t criticisms, really: Carey isn’t aiming for stunning originality, but instead for that lurching twist in perspective that thrillers are good at doing, deranging the audience’s view of events and keeping them just off- balance enough to continue reading. But it does mean that the novel is more thoroughly of its genre than I prefer; I’m not a huge fan of zombie tales in the first place, and so the more derivative elements of this text were inherently less interesting to me (I imagine another reader might enjoy them in much the same way as I enjoy the stereotypical trappings of steampunk). The Girl With All the Gifts does what it’s trying to do well; but its world is not one I feel compelled to return to.