NOT EVERY GIFT IS A BLESSING. Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh. Melanie is a very special girl.
The cover of the proof copy of The Girl With All The Gifts tells me, in bold black block capitals, that “Melanie has a gift for us all. But it’s a secret.” It’s a secret that many people have been clamouring to read about; the novel arrives with three pages of glowing recommendations from booksellers and reviewers. These are not just hype. Melanie’s story is strange and unusual, fascinating and compelling, a new and different take on the classic B-movie staple, the zombie apocalypse.
First, Melanie is a child. A little girl. Our view of the world is filtered through her perceptions for the majority of the narrative, so events are presented with curiosity and naiveté. Of course, it also allows Carey to withhold information from us as readers; we have to wait until Melanie, or one of the other lead characters, discovers it for themselves or share it with her. However, Melanie’s not just a child. She’s a much more sinister part of the problem, although she herself is not aware of it.
Then, we have the adults. There’s Miss Justineau, who Melanie thinks of as a teacher, and idolises, but in fact is a psychologist observing her subjects’ reactions. Unfortunately, she can’t help but sympathise with those same children. There’s Dr Caldwell, intent on using experimentation to find a cure for the merciless infection gripping the whole of the UK, and immune to any appeals against her chosen methods. And there’s Sergeant Parks – Eddie to his friends – who’s seen enough “hungries”, up close and personal, to learn how to survive, how to blend in, and how not to care.
Finally, we have the hungries. For the first fifty pages, we only hear hints of their existence, tension in voices, security procedures being followed, and then, when they arrive, we are shown the unbelievable danger and ferocity they embody. They are really chilling, as is the explanation Carey gives us for their origin. There are various schools of thought about the “rules” for zombies – I’m not too worried about that – but these are definite fast ones, and all the scarier for it. I read on with a feeling of profound anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
There’s no denying this is a real page-turner. While I didn’t feel the level of intense fear, or quite the same empathy, as with Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, I was quickly drawn into the action and read the whole thing – all 403 pages – in just two sittings; you could say I devoured it… The characters work well in their expected roles, but don’t just fall into stereotypes – they’re well-rounded and compelling to follow. The origin of the hungries is a stroke of genius; as a big fan of The X-Files, while it was still good, it did seem vaguely familiar but it’s a great idea and the awful familiarity of it makes it all the more horrifying.
When a book is so hyped, it’s almost impossible for it to live up to the level of frenzy. I’m not sure anything could have done in this case, but I can nonetheless recommend The Girl With All The Gifts to those who enjoy a high-tension thriller that explores what makes us human and what is really worth fighting for.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M J Carey is out now in hardback from Orion, at £12.99