“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.
There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that it. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom – a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.
Melanie was new herself, once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. They fall out, and then they’re gone.”
It’s time to admit, as a society, that the zombie craze is finally on its last legs – if it’s not over already. And honestly, I think we’re way overdue anyway. I was tired of hearing about the damn things around the time I stopped watching The Walking Dead. Going into this book and knowing that it dealt with zombies (as will anyone who reads even three pages, so for anyone preparing to charge into the comments and accuse me of spoiling the entire book: shut up), I was pretty sure that I knew what I was going to get. There are only so many ways to tell a zombie apocalypse story, and I had seen/read enough variations to be able to guess what was coming.
So I’m delighted and grateful to report that yes, MR Carey has managed to tell a zombie apocalypse story in a new way. It’s not just his unconventional choice of narrator – he knows better than to let his entire novel rest on a single gimmick. The Girl With All the Gifts rexamines and reinvents several staples of the zombie genre, and does something new with them. Considering how oversaturated the market has become, it’s pretty astonishing that he manages to take so many familiar tropes and do something new with them. I won’t go into more detail, because the less you know about the circumstances of the story going into it, the better. Start with the premise everyone knows – this is a book about zombies – and let yourself discover everything alongside the characters.
And there’s plenty to discover. Carey is apparently most well-known for his work writing comic books, and it shows – the book is over four hundred pages long, and he keeps the action zipping along at a consistently maintained clip. Even when the characters aren’t running from one (very well staged and described) action setpiece to another, there’s no real downtime. Even when characters are just standing around and talking, their conversation addresses hidden drama or results in a tense confrontation, and there’s no time for the reader to get bored. Like me, you’ll probably tear through this in a matter of days, because every time a chapter ends you’ll have to read the next one.
Carey made the wise decision to let multiple people narrate his story, so we aren’t just confined to Melanie’s extremely limited knowledge base. By letting us into the heads of people who know way more than Melanie does about the circumstances of the zombie plague, Carey lets his readers get all the information they need, while still maintaining suspense. And the ending (again, no spoilers) was possibly the best ending to a zombie apocalypse novel I’ve ever found, not counting Shaun of the Dead. Carey’s ending acknowledges the true hopelessness of a zombie apocalypse, but manages to resolve his story in a satisfying way. It’s impressive, to say the least.
I had a very cheesy line worked out about how MR Carey has managed to reanimate the dead zombie genre (haha, see what I did there?) but I came up with a better one: the zombie genre is Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, MR Carey is John Travolta, and The Girl With All the Gifts is the syringe of adrenaline, sending a jolt of life back into a tired and dying genre. The zombie craze is on its way out, but The Girl With All the Gifts makes a great final encore.
Verdict: five out of five stars