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"The Girl With All of the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

During the Speculative Fiction: Year in Review panel I got interested in the book jacket description of a book from last year, “The Girl With All of the Gifts,” by M.R. Carey. It was the set-up that got me mostly: a zombie story centering around a young girl, Melanie, the eponymous "girl with all of the gifts," the object of a government study in some mysterious military base. She is kept under constant armed guard, taught about Greek myths while lashed to a chair, and fed writhing meal grubs once a week after being sprayed with some sort of chemical that leaves a bitter smell on her skin. It's the kind of set-up, so inherently wrong and enigmatic, that I just had to follow to the end.

"The Girl with All the Gifts" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia 
Without giving too much away, Melanie doesn’t stay at the government research facility all too long. The bulk of the story is a long trek through the post-apocalyptic wastes of England, with Melanie tagging along with a pair of soldiers, a very scary microbiologist, and her teacher at the facility. In addition to a paranoid, violent remnant of the government, the humans and other of the story have to content with Junkers, or humans that have gone all Cormac McCarthy, and the hordes of Hungries, which is the book’s term for mindless, flesh-hungry ghouls other movies and novels might term zombies. There are other echoes in Carey’s novel; she describes Melanie as a Pandora and the journey conforms to the pattern of other famous epics, a modern Odyssey, only with lots of hungry undead.

That brings us to the first refreshing aspect of this book. Nothing goes as expected. I found it difficult to predict what was going to happen in this novel other than in the very broadest strokes. That was very appealing. It’s not that M.R. Carey constantly throws twists and surprises at the reader, it’s just an unsettling sense in the book that nothing quite works out the way it should. There is an appealing novelty to Carey’s monsters, both in the cause of the zombie infestation and how the apocaplyse plays out in England. 

“The Girl With All of the Gifts,” also brings a commitment to verisimilitude. I find it tough to suspend disbelief in zombies. I like the concept and more than a few of my favorite movies, television shows, and books have drawn their inspiration from the idea of mobs of living dead. That said, most recent zombie movies have gone with the rather dubious explanation that a virus could animate corpses, causing them to mindlessly shamble (or sprint) after their living prey. It’s to Carey’s credit that she strikes out in a different and under-utilized direction, incorporating a little more William Hope Hodgson than I’ve seen outside of a Jeff VanderMeer story.

I’m afraid I don’t know much of Carey’s background, but I found myself thoroughly buying the science scenes of the book, which suggests either a heroic level of research or experience in biomedical research. When confronted with something outlandish like the walking dead, using the correct nomenclature and research props go a long way to maintaining the right atmosphere of dread.
This is still an uphill fight, however. And I found that what I enjoy about zombies was not necessarily what Carey was interested in writing about. I found myself chafing at points, eager to have her character delve into the meaning of the mindless zombies versus the waking consciousness of the human characters. As this was the basic difference between her young protagonist and the monsters around her, I think some consideration of the nature of consciousness and free will would have been appropriate.

As it is, I can recommend this book to genre fans and non-genre fans willing to veer off from straight reality. There are plenty of speculative elements to the story, moments where Carey is able to pull back away from the human-scale drama of the story to provide a wider sense of the world besieged by the zombie epidemic. These really worked for me. This is easily the best zombie related story I’ve read since World War Z, and well-worth reading.
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