Friday, 24 June 2016

The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey

I came across some rave reviews for this book online, so decided to treat myself to it. I am a big fan of any kind of post-apocalyptic literature. I love the creation of a possible future world, whether positive or negative and the various scenarios played out in the new world and how humanity deals with them.

Zombie books I am less keen on. There seems to be a lot of the samey shuffling around, groaning and eating people and I don’t have much of a stomach for gore. Occasionally there is something different, like World War Z (detailed and intelligent) or Warm Bodies (funny and not too bogged down by endless boring zombie chases). I would put The Girl with All the Gifts into that something different category.

The Girl with All the Gifts
 is set in a future world which has been overrun and destroyed by a virus that causes people to turn into zombies (or “hungries”). Melanie is a very intelligent little girl that lives on an army base somewhere in England. Every day she is taken from a locked room, strapped to a wheelchair with a gun pointed at her head and taken to a classroom to join other children strapped in wheelchairs. They are taught about the world by various teachers including her favourite Miss Justineau. It is difficult to give an idea of what the book is about without giving too much away and spoiling the suspense. Certainly when I ordered the book, I knew every little and on reading it I enjoyed the story unfolding layer by layer.

It takes the book some time to reveal why the children are kept in this way and what the purpose of the base is. Throughout this part of the book we get to know Melanie – her genius level intelligence, coupled with ignorance about the world outside the base and her innocent questioning of what is going on around her.

Whereas the first part of the book cranks up the tension with its slow reveal and fascinating premise, the second part of the book changes gear. It is faster in pace, but I was somewhat less engrossed as the trajectory of the next part of the story felt a little bit more like familiar ground. Towards the last third, the book slows down and the intrigue and revelations start rolling again. I found myself hooked at the end again and reading the last part of the book when I was supposed to be getting ready for work so that I could find some resolution for the characters and the situation they find themselves in.

This book is elevated from the usual groaning and gore of this genre by its beautiful writing – we get to see the world from the perspective of someone who has only read about trees, butterflies and birds and then gets to see them for the first time with completely fresh eyes. The novel also does something else which zombie books don’t tend to do, which is to explore the human condition and relationships: guilt, despair, hope and the love between Melanie and her beloved Miss Justineau.

The book makes an intelligent and believable attempt at including the science around the Zombies and what has happened to Melanie and the other children like her without getting bogged down by it too much. I liked also that the book is set in England including locations in London which are certainly given a complete, rather terrifying, makeover for the future. The glimpses into the near past and how the government reacted to the virus are haunting and the hints about what might have happened to them are haunting and one of the things that stayed with me at the end of the book.

This was probably one of the best books I have read this year. I think the writer takes a genre that can be treated quite superficially with a focus on gore and gives it heart and depth through the journey that Melanie is taken on. Rather than a simple blood-fest it becomes a thoughtful commentary on love, humanity and evil, still with lots of gross bits of course.

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