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Posted on 31 Mar 2015 in SFF |

MR CAREY The Girl With All The Gifts. Reviewed by Jacqui Dent

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girlwithgiftsSentient zombies will give you something to think about in this post-apocalyptic thriller.

Since they first entered the popular consciousness, zombies have been evolving creatures. From humans under voodoo spells, to shuffling reanimated corpses, to virus-infected sprinters, zombies have always changed with the times. And now they’re beginning to gain intelligence.

In recent times we’ve seen the sentient zombie in the book/film Warm Bodies, and the less well-known BBC drama In the Flesh. Both these narratives toned down the horror and focused on relationships between the living and the undead. Now, in The Girl With All The Gifts, MR Carey puts the horror back in and gives us the thinking, feeling zombie that is also genuinely dangerous. When faced with such a threat, Carey asks, where do we draw the line between right and wrong?

It’s a line that is even harder to identify when the sentient zombie is a ten-year-old girl. Melanie lives in a cell and attends classes on ‘the base’. She doesn’t remember how she got to the base. She doesn’t know why, when taken to class, she needs to be restrained in a wheelchair. She doesn’t know why her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau, is not allowed to touch her. She doesn’t know why, if her teachers forget to spray themselves with chemicals to mask their scent, they begin to make her hungry:

… even though the smell was very faint where Melanie was, it made her head swim and her jaw muscles start to work all by themselves. She can’t even figure out what it was she was feeling, because it’s not like anything that ever happened to her before or anything she heard about in a story, but it was like there was something she was supposed to do and it was so urgent, so important that her body was trying to take over her mind and do it without her.

It’s approximately 20 years since the Breakdown, a catastrophic event that wiped out the majority of the world’s population and turned them into ‘hungries’. Hungries are people infected by the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which hijacks the nervous system, disintegrates consciousness and turns the host into a walking, hunting corpse. Connoisseurs of the apocalypse will recognise Ophiocordyceps as the ‘zombie’ fungus, a real life pathogen known for its apparently mind-controlling effect upon ants. Carey’s depiction of this fungus, mutated to infect humans, is detailed, imaginative and incredibly eerie. When not hunting, the human hungries stand completely still, like statues:

They look like they’re posing for paintings, or sunk into such deep introspection that they’ve forgotten what it was they were meant to be doing. Not like they’re waiting; not like a single sound or movement out of place would wake them and launch them into instant motion.

Now hungry children, including Melanie, have been captured and are held by the army in the hope that they hold the answer to curing Ophiocordyceps. Melanie and the other children contained at the base have somehow retained their intelligence. They walk, talk, think and feel. Their hungry impulses are controlled by chemicals that the humans spray on themselves to mask their scent. Together with her classmates, Melanie is taught language, maths, science and literature. She’s monitored by teachers and psychologists. Her intended fate is dissection.

Carey lets us understand all this from Melanie’s perspective, and there’s something delightfully creepy about this view of a sinister world through the eyes of a child. The parts of the story told in Melanie’s voice are easily the strongest in the novel, particularly during the opening chapters. So it came as no surprise to learn from the book’s acknowledgements that the The Girl With All The Gifts began as a short story, ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’, published in the 2012 anthology An Apple for the Creature. And while Carey has found ample material from the original to expand into a fascinating longer narrative, I did sometimes miss the mastery of the opening 50 pages.

The adult characters in this story were also a source of some disappointment. As in so many zombie survival stories, Carey draws the main tension not from the conflict between humans and hungries – although that is present – but from the conflict between humans and other humans. Specifically it is the conflict between Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr Caldwell, who are at odds with each other over the subject of Melanie.

Miss Justineau sees Melanie as a child, in need of love and protection. Dr Caldwell sees her as a valuable test subject, a resource to be mined for the greater good. Sergeant Parks regards her as a dangerous animal, a threat to be contained and, if necessary, disposed of. Melanie, of course, is all of these things, and thus greater than the estimation of any of these adults.

The battle between the adults is compelling. However, as the story progresses, their constant arguments become predictable and exasperating. Perhaps the author’s intention was to contrast the rigid mind-set of the adults with the flexibility of the child Melanie, and these two aspects do play nicely against each other. But there is room for more growth in this story than Carey allows, particularly for Miss Justineau. Her behaviour is repetitive and irrational and made all the more maddening for the reader beside the subtly achieved character arc given to Sergeant Parks. Even Parks’s dopey subordinate, Private Gallagher, manages to be more rounded than either of the two adult women, Justineau and Dr Caldwell, and the story suffers because of it.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s been a bestseller in the UK and short-listed for the inaugural James Herbert Award for Horror Writing, achievements both well deserved. It’s gripping and original, skilfully written and definitely recommended for readers who think they’ve seen everything that zombies have to offer. The Girl With All The Gifts will prove them wrong.

MR Carey The Girl With All The Gifts Orbit 2014 PB 512pp $19.99

Jacqui Dent has had short works published in Voiceworks, Verity La, The Emerging Writer and broadcast on ABC Radio National. Visit her at www.jacquident.net or Twitter: @notjacquident.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.