The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey is the kind of book that benefits from the reader knowing as little as possible beforehand; the blurb on the cover gives almost nothing away, save to hint at the protagonist’s plight and begin to build the reader’s sympathies. For those who don’t want anything that might spoil the story, suffice to say this is a tightly-plotted, compulsive read that’s at once a bleak look at how mankind might react under terrible circumstances and a compassionate tale of what makes us human. If you are a fan of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson or more modern writers like Justin Cronin (author of The Passage) then look no further; this should appeal. If you want to know a little more, without any actual spoilers, then read on.
To slightly mangle a Mark Twain quote, nature is often stranger than fiction. M. R. Carey illustrates this to good effect here, looking for the origins of this dystopian story to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, otherwise known as the ‘zombie fungus’, a species of parasitic fungus that infects insects and manipulates them into propagating its spores. Look it up – it’s disgustingly fascinating (see this David Attenborough clip), and genuinely scary when extended fictionally to infect humans as well. The central character, Melanie, is a ten year old girl whose world extends only as far as the boundaries of the military facility in which she is kept. Naive, emotionally under-developed but blindingly intelligent, what little she knows of the ravaged world outside comes from a cadre of ‘teachers’ into whose classroom she and her fellow children are brought, strapped into wheelchairs and unable to physically interact with each other or any of the staff.
While it has all the hallmarks of a typical page-turner, and clearly draws deeply from the dystopian/post-apocalyptic well, this poses some deeper questions than most thrillers might try to. With Melanie as the lens through which the events of the story are seen, the reader is asked to consider what constitutes childhood, and thereafter a person’s humanity, given that all children inevitably build their own image of the world based on what they’re exposed to as they grow up. It’s also blessed with a cast of characters where the men are largely soldiers, specifically trained to be capable of little more than their roles dictate, while the women are strong, driven and emotionally-complex, and provide both protagonists and the main antagonist.
Fans of the afore-mentioned authors will find much to enjoy here, as will anyone with even a passing interest in dystopian fiction or classic science fiction and horror. It’s a properly gripping story, and one that for large stretches manages to keep the reader on their toes and unsure of quite what’s coming next. If it occasionally ventures into familiar territory it makes up for that with its strong concept and powerful delivery.