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Book Review: M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts

Her name is Melanie. It means ‘the black girl’ from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair, so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list, or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that. — opening lines of The Girl With All the Gifts

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for 4½ months, ever since I read Charlie Jane Anders’s glowing review on io9. In her words, “[s]ome books feature powerful characterization and heart-stopping emotional journeys. Others have great world-building in the service of a thundering great adventure. Still others have clever scientific ideas. But it’s rare to find a book… that aces all of the above.” In Anders’s view, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts is that book, a book to “blow your mind.”

After finally getting my hands on it, I don’t think I agree.

There’s plenty I can say to praise the book. It’s extremely readable, moving at a mad clip for just over 400 pages: I read it in a day and a half, and during my read, I was definitely guilty of being That Woman Walking Through the Streets Like Belle “with her nose stuck in a book.” I enjoyed the ride. I’m not sorry I read it. But I don’t feel like it does anything magnificently “new.”

The Girl With All the Gifts is a dystopian novel, set in a near-future UK where people are living in tiny, isolated communities, there’s a lot of military activity, and are afraid to go out into the wilderness. The characters we’re following are primarily staff (and one student) at a very unusual boarding school: in the first chapter, we learn that when the children go to their classroom each morning, they’re first bound into wheelchairs with straps on their arms, legs, and neck. They only eat once a week, and the whole building smells like nasty chemicals. But our hero, ten-year-old Melanie, doesn’t mind any of this: she loves school, loves Greek mythology (especially the tale of Pandora, whose name literally means “the all-endowed” – that’s where the title comes from), and loves her teacher, Miss Justineau. She couldn’t be happier.

Of course, the adults who comprise the rest of our viewpoint characters have a slightly more complicated view of things.

Saying more than this, and especially getting into what I didn’t like about the book, is tough to do without including spoilers, so I’ll throw up the flag: abandon all hope of unspoiled reading, ye who proceed from here.

In its themes, the apocalyptic scenario Carey crafted reminded me of Mira Grant’s Parasite (read my review here): he presents an interesting symbiotic twist on the zombie tale. One thing I liked very much about Carey’s approach was that he didn’t string the readers along: around the time I figured out what was going on (roughly 50 pages in), he has his school administrators talk about it explicitly in-scene. The threat to this world is “hungries,” people infected with a new strain of Ophiocordyceps, a real-world fungus that currently infects ants. In its original form, the fungus drives its hosts to climb high up in the trees so that they can rain spores down on the forest floor; Carey’s modified human variety has never been seen to produce spores, so the only way it can be spread is by (you guessed it) biting. Hungries are classic horror-movie zombies, mindless and basically inanimate until they’re presented with an opportunity to go after human flesh. Except, that is, for a small minority – all children – who seem to be almost “normal.” The kids in this school are oddly-sentient hungries; the reason everyone smells like chemicals all the time is because of a gel that blocks the enzymes in the (uninfected) adults’ sweat that would otherwise send the children into a feeding frenzy.

As a concept, it’s interesting, and I flew through the first hundred pages eager to see what would happen next. But then – disaster befalls the school compound! a few adults and Melanie need to go on the run! everyone but Miss Justineau wants to send Melanie away!

After the first hundred pages, the book becomes an adventure story, and at that point, my mind was no longer blown. I think the main reason for that is because although I believed there were credible threats outside the group, I didn’t really feel any tension between the characters Carey works so hard to convince us are at odds. The three main adults Melanie’s interacting with are her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, the school’s military commander, Sergeant Parks, and the head scientist, Doctor Caldwell. Parks makes a lot of noise for quite a while about how Melanie’s not safe, and she needs to be sent away; Caldwell is constantly talking about how she needs Melanie as a specimen to figure out why the fungus is working differently in her body. But since I didn’t really believe that either of these things was going to happen, all the talk around them seemed like a waste of words.

I was also disappointed in the “twist” ending, where the reason for the special children’s unusual degree of sentience is explained. Along with Caldwell, we as readers were supposed to notice a few hungries encountered throughout the novel who had vestigial “normal” behavior of one kind or another; this leads Caldwell to the conclusion that some hungries maintained vestigial sex drives, and that the children are their offspring, born with the fungus in their bodies and therefore adapted to be symbiotic with it. This revelation comes alongside the discovery of a huge wall of mature fungus that’s about to produce spores, which will make the infection airborne and ensure that every uninfected person in the world will soon become a mindless hungry. But some of them will breed, and their offspring will go on to found a new civilization, with Miss Justineau in her biohazard suit there to bridge the gap.

The readers are strongly encouraged to see this ending as evoking the opening of Pandora’s box, where many terrible things were released into the world but then Hope followed at the end. I couldn’t help but wonder how many readers would see this as a happy ending: wiping out the last dregs of the human race over the age of 16 seemed to me quite a bit darker than your typical dystopic glimmer-of-hope novel.

Maybe I’m jaded; maybe I’ve read too many dystopias; maybe it’s that this book is, at its heart, a plot-driven story with comparatively little attention paid to developing rich characters (I had particular issues with Dr. Caldwell’s motivations in several places). With the exception of Melanie, I found the characters shallow and forgettable, and that’s never a good recipe to draw me into a book. That said, if you’re a zombie/dystopia fan looking for an interesting alternate take, this story makes a fun read.

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