MR Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts is currently making quite a few waves at the moment, and not without good reason. Featuring a small cast of well-drawn characters, it’s an original and fast-paced horror thriller as you’re very likely to read, and even manages to put an entirely fresh spin on what’s fast becoming the hoary old cliché of zombies and the walking dead.
The main character of the title is Melanie, a young girl who spends her days in a classroom located deep inside a military bunker where she is learning alongside other children. However Melanie is the brightest of them all, and she soon sees the disconnect between the world she is learning about from her teachers and the clues she picks up about what actually lies outside the concrete walls and barbed wire fences.
It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario set 20 years after the world was ravaged by a plague that kills everyone it infects and then turns them into mindless flesh-eating feeding machines called ‘hungries’. Circumstances conspire to violently eject Melanie and a small group out from their protective cocoon in southern Britain into the reality of this ravaged world. It’s not only Melanie who has some shocks coming at what they find: her favourite teacher Helen Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell, battle-hardened Sergeant Parks and raw recruit Private Gallagher will all find their preconceptions overturned – about the world, the hungries, each other and even themselves.
The originality of the novel comes partly from the character of Melanie and her unique world view as she voraciously tries to take in all the new information flooding in, and also from a twist on the plague that has caused the zombies Here it’s based on a particularly nasty real life fungus called Ophiocordyceps camponotibalzani that you may have seen on an Attenborough documentary or perhaps an especially memorable segment of the panel show QI; it’s also been used in the popular video game The Last of Us and doubtless others of which I’m unaware so its use here is not exactly entirely unprecedented. What it does do in this novel is allow Carey to create a very different type of threat for the characters than the usual one-note zombie plague as we follow Caldwell’s investigation work into the infection’s nature, purpose and how to stop or even reverse it.
The twist means we know as little as the characters do about the behaviour of the hungries, what they’re capable of or what they’re actually doing, and why a small number of people seem to be able to survive infection to a degree. In the latter stages of the book it allows Carey to draw an increasingly alien landscape, as not only the people but the very environment becomes part of the plague’s purpose and life cycle. As a result, there’s never any of that sense of over-familiarity with zombies that you get from most other stories these days.
But most of all this is a story about the characters: about Melanie and her devotion to Miss Justineau (and vice verse), their emotional power contrasted with the Caldwell and Park’s dispassionate devotion to their jobs above all else. Not that anyone stays the same: each character gets their turn in the spotlight thanks to different chapters adopting the point of view of each of the five main protagonists fairly evenly. Sometimes the chapters loop back and overlap so that we get to see what different characters are thinking about the same events, and over the course of the book our understanding of each of them broadens and deepens significantly as they themselves develop and change in reaction to the events around them.
It’s a great tale, at heart a road trip/quest story but with all the nerve-jangling adrenalin rush of a zombie horror movie and yet with the character work you’d expect from a much more mainstream literary novel. It’s excellently written by Carey who never puts a foot wrong, and the result is one of the outstanding books of the year as far as I’m concerned. Yes, there’s certainly blood and guts and gore that some might find off-putting, and the true life-inspired nature of the plague is particularly chilling, but these are small prices to pay for such an excellent and ultimately very moving story.
The Girl With All The Gifts is available in paperback from all good bookshops and online in e-book formats.