Damage Report: The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey is a slow-burn, especially for those of us who are very burnt out on zombies (me). It verged on being a near miss, but the final scenes more than justified my time spent. The characterization is flat, but the action proves to be thrilling while a sense of mystery keeps the pages turning. Ultimately, the ways M. R. Carey twists the zombie mythology and standards of zombie fiction to give his story a history all its own prove that The Girl With All the Gifts is worth the ride. I won’t blame anyone for not getting in the car, but at least it isn’t the beginning of a series.
At some point in the last ten years, a fictional apocalypse occurred in Western culture, utterly annihilating the ability for writers (including those behind some award-winning television shows, movies, and video games) to write about anything other than zombies. At first, I was infected with a real sense of joy at this turn of events but things have since turned and rotted. I didn’t expect The Girl With All the Gifts to be yet another zombie story, and I doubt I would have even started it if I had known how long it would take the story to come into its own.
I have long loved zombies, often at the expense of other classic tropes of horror. Vampires? Stakes are low for that bunch! Ghosts? Boo-ring! Werewolves are no silver bullet for my loathing of typical horror monsters either. Without question, zombies are almost always less terrifying than my own bad puns. That’s why I love them so much. Unlike other monsters who become the central focus, zombie stories give authors opportunities to explore humanity and the human condition, how we react to hardships and whether or not we are still willing to be civilized when civilization has largely fallen to the wayside.
The Girl With All the Gifts is no exception. Similar to so many others, this is a story of a postapocalyptic world struggling to find answers for the future of mankind. The book’s title refers to Melanie, the most gifted child of a group of young children being kept under strangely secure conditions in an underground area of a military outpost. There, Melanie and the others are educated by Miss Justineau and other teachers about a wide variety of topics (Greek mythology comes up repeatedly), before they mysteriously disappear when the base’s chief research scientist Dr. Caldwell calls on the closest thing to a Sheriff, Officer Parks, to bring the children she needs.
The novel had my interest from the first page, but things went south once I realized that these children were just a mysterious part of a world filled with the same old zombie story tropes with a cast of interesting but ultimately flat characters to reenact them. These children are zombies, more or less, but unlike their usual zombie cousins, they have managed to keep all their mental faculties and – with the proper care – have had their hunger suppressed well enough that they can be taught like regular schoolchildren in hopes of experimenting on their brains to find a cure.
The mysteries surrounding Melanie, why she exists, and if her existence will lead to some sort of cure are interesting enough, but its the use of child as a primary source of fear and anxiety for the other characters that makes The Girl With All the Gifts stand apart. Simply put: no one knows how to handle these child-like, intelligent, human-looking creatures. The Doctor, Caldwell, wants to cut them up to research a cure. The Teacher, Justineau, wants to protect Melanie and others like her since they can be taught to control their instincts. The Soldier, Parks, just wants to keep them all at business end of his gun so he can keep control of every situation.
Especially in modern Western culture, there’s a taboo toward depicting violence toward or with children. The Girl With All the Gifts not only ignores that taboo, but asks as a central question, “What are you supposed to do when the biggest threat in the room looks like and mostly acts like an innocent child?” Though the novel quickly breaks away from any real discussions of how humanity has survived since the fall of civilization, I think it is fair to say that Melanie represents the only innocence still alive in the world. Ultimately, that innocence is treated as alien, hostile, or a relic of a bygone era. In a world where humanity no longer understands the concept of innocence as one of its own, all that remains are the guilty and their slow burial under the weight of a lifetime of sins.
Though the book held my attention, the middle section did little for me; in fact, despite rewarding this book a ‘hit’, it was almost certainly a ‘miss’ up until the book’s final chapters where mysteries are solved and the true nature of the story finally comes clearly into view. After the initial introduction to the world and characters, the middle portion of The Girl With All the Gifts functions as a fairly drab action story. There are attempts at advancing characterization which work presumably to the author’s exact intent, but barely add the necessary depth to flesh out these individuals beyond their tweetable motivations. The whole affair drags.
The final third changes all of that.
As our ragtag band find themselves on the outskirts of London, they come upon a mobile science lab that was used before the fall and just after to research zombies. It’s a fortress on wheels, complete with guns, the most expensive and fully-equipped lab possible, and ways to replenish its water supply for maximum survivability. It is also abandoned save for a driver who has long since put a bullet through his head. It becomes evident that getting this mobile lab up and running again is their only chance to survive.
It’s at this point in the novel – 90% of the way done or so – that a crescendo of revelations begins to pour out of its pages. While I am of the view that it is critically important to have a middle section worth reading, I also believe that it is important that you build toward something. The Girl With All the Gifts does not disappoint because not only do we meet a tribe of zombie children who will likely inherit the earth, we also kill off every major character in a series of unsettling moments. Quite literally, the only innocence left in the world rises up in the form of oddly dressed and incredibly hungry children to feast on the few surviving humans left. That’s right, the last bastion of civilization has been consumed by the same fungus that forced humans to become maddened zombies in the first place.
The novel ends much as it begun. Melanie, now protecting Miss Justineau, leads a classroom with those who will inherit the earth: the other zombie children they found out in the wilds of a derelict de-urbanized world. It is a chilling conclusion, but damn does it feel good to see mankind lose one for a change.
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