So I’ve just finished reading The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey and for about 99% of the novel, I despised it. The first thing your eyes are probably drawn to on the cover is the woefully misguided phrase ‘The Most Original Thriller You’ll Read This Year’ above the title. I was questioning this sentiment throughout the entire thing and going ‘Really? Fucking really?’ Did marketing have to skimp on printing costs and cut a U and an N from the front of the word Original. Maybe it was all about cover symmetry – like the extra letters threw it off-centre creating a more displeasing composition? Now, I get this phrase is kinda worthless because it doesn’t have quotation marks around it – therefore it was just thought up by some marketing arsehole. But still ‘Really? Fucking really?’
Because you see The Girl With All The Gifts is another one of those zombie novels. And in my opinion, anything with zombies in it lost it’s right to call itself original around about 2010. Zombies are everywhere, penetrating every part of our culture, be it film, television, books, or video games – so much so that it can sometimes feel like we’re living in some kind of zombie invasion ourselves. Let’s take a look at some of the most egregious examples of things with zombies in, shall we my lovelies?
You got Plants Vs Zombies. iZombie (a TV show about a zombie detective). Warm Bodies (a story about zombies who fall in love). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the book. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the movie. Cockneys Vs Zombies. World War Z the film (which trashed the book to make a completely generic film). Call of Duty: Zombies Mode. Marvel Comics: Zombies miniseries (with a zombie Spider-Man). The UK government’s Zombie Defence Plan (it’s real). Fear The Walking Dead (a bad TV show spin off of a bad TV show). Those bath salts from America that make you want to eat people’s faces (also real). And whatever Resident Evil film they’re up to now. My point is that zombies have lost whatever horror or shock value they once had. They’re just incredibly old hat and kinda dumb. So much so that even the people writing these things are starting to see how silly they are – and you know that they’re usually the last to figure it out.
To bring this back to The Girl With All The Gifts what I found was a mostly generic and rather dull zombie story that not only used the concepts of a traditional zombie story, but also hit all the supplementary beats you would expect. For example, the not calling zombies zombies cliche (they are called ‘hungries’ here). Of course this whole thing comes with a giant asterisk, in that in the final 1% of the book The Girl With All The Gifts delivers an ending that is very interesting and recontextualises some of the major things that came before it. It’s sad that a little more of that intrigue and ingenuity couldn’t have been spread throughout, because I don’t think it’s worth wading through the preceding 450 pages to get to it.
The Girl With All The Gifts follows Melanie, a child who is imprisoned in a military camp. Every day, she gets strapped into a chair and taken to a classroom, with other children similarly restrained. A teacher comes in to give the children a lesson, and if it’s a lucky day it’s a woman called Miss Justineau. Melanie likes Mrs Justineau the most, because she is kind and loving and tells them the best stories. But quickly we find out that this isn’t a regular class and these aren’t regular kids – they’re half zombie and are on the base to be experimented on by sinister scientist Dr Caroline Caldwell. Justineau regularly argues with Caldwell about the treatment of the children, while Caldwell and armyman Seargent Parks remain resolute – the children are monsters. But when the base gets invaded by a swarm of zombies, Justineau and Melanie find themselves thrust together with Caldwell, Parks and armyboy Gallagher as they flee, having to fight for survival beyond the base’s walls.
The idea of human-hybrid-zombies is not particularly new, and the idea of a child being the cure is even less so, but The Girl With All The Gifts does explore the idea a bit more in-depth than most. Melanie has to come to terms with the fact that she is not human, and that she will most likely knaw her favourite teacher’s face off is she got the chance. Melanie is an interesting character, but her arc wavers a bit too much, treading water until a final gutpunch. And that’s a big problem with The Girl With All The Gifts. Characters don’t really change and they’re all rather one note. Melanie loves Mrs Justineau. Mrs Justineau will do anything to protect Melanie. Caldwell will sacrifice anything in the name of science. Parks is a proud man bound to his station. Gallagher is a scaredy cat. That’s all you really need to know.
Another big issue with The Girl With All The Gifts ties into an even bigger one. I don’t like the writing at all. The opening chapters relinquish any type of nuance or subtlety, feeling like Carey is shouting the story into your ear and making sure you ‘get it’. The question of what the children are is resolved quickly, where it could have been left in the wind for a while, leaving readers to puzzle it out. There’s a terrible early chapter where Caldwell and Justineau have a conversation about the zombie virus which screams ‘EXPOSITION’. It doesn’t get much better either. All this added up to me being extremely bored while reading The Girl With All The Gifts. I wasn’t given anything to emotionally or cognitively challenge me. The entire story was laid out for me, and I didn’t have to do any of the work, leading to it all feeling dull as dishwater.
Carey chooses to tell the story in a rather bizarre way. We get present tense and an omniscient narrator. We’re constantly popping around character’s head willy nilly, bouncing around like a goddamn pinball machine. I don’t like pinball so this was a problem for me. One minute we’re inside Melanie’s head and then we’re inside Parks’ head and then we’re inside Justineau’s head. And that’s without any chapter or paragraph breaks. And this happens all throughout the novel, leading to the problem that I don’t actually know who the main character of this story is. Is it Justineau – as she tries to shield Melanie from the world? Is it Caldwell – who is hellbent on understanding the virus? Is it Melanie – because she’s the one mentioned in the blurb? Probably – but I don’t know for sure.
The characters sometimes get a little annoying. Seeing as they don’t really have arcs or any kind of complex emotional tapestry, they seem to end up repeating themselves a lot. Justineau is a particular sufferer of this, as she complains every single time Parks wants to tie Melanie up – because you know, she’s a zombie. Justineau gets so goddamn annoying, that any sympathies for her character go out the window, and that’s ironic seeing as I wish someone had thrown her out the window. Yes, there is an argument for Justineau’s blind loyalty being essential during the late-game but it still doesn’t make it any better while experiencing it. Just shut up, Justineau. Shut up. Even when Melanie’s like ‘Yeah you should tie me up, I am a motherfucking zombie after all.’ Justineau still complains. Arrrgh!
The Girl With All The Gifts trundles along to a conclusion that, in some ways, it doesn’t earn. But to be entirely fair, it’s definitely neat (although I probably wouldn’t go as far as ‘cool’). Everything you’d think would be in this zombie book is here – people getting bitten and contemplating their existence as they slowly turn, self-sacrifice, a tense trip into a zombie-populated area, a clear set-up of the zombie ‘rules’ and a terribly shoe-horned in romantic subplot because fuck it, right? There are neat things in The Girl With All The Gifts but unless you really love zombies, it’s not worth reading it to find them.
This might be the first and last time I ever say this, but if you really want to consume The Girl With All The Gifts I would probably just go and see the film instead. I haven’t seen it but I assume it’ll follow the story, and you can’t stop a film in the cinema. Like it’s just going to keep going in front of your eyeballs, and you can’t put it down like a book.
The Girl With All The Gifts is an underwhelming and frequently annoying zombie tale that doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the crowd. Yes, it’s got a girl who’s half zombie in it, but that’s not enough to combat every time this novel falls back into cliche. One dimensional characters have the same conversations over and over, or worse they drop heavy-handed exposition to anyone who’ll listen. The ending is interesting and offers up some questions – it’s just sad that the rest of the novel couldn’t be imbued with that spirit.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.R. CAREY