Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Sometimes the answers we’re looking for and that which we hope for lies in the very thing we fear the most.

Disclaimer:
A shortened version of this review also appears on Women24.com, a South African women's lifestyle website where I manage, amongst other things, an online books section.


The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (Orbit)
M.R. Carey’s Girl with All the Gifts is one of the most thought-provoking and gut-wrenching dystopian thrillers I’ve read this year so far.

It’s a novel that explores the heart of a rag-tag group of people and their will to survive in a world shot to hell and it’s a book that pushes boundaries in terms of the ethics versus science debate.

It’s literature that is at once filled with beauty, while at the same time highlights the shabby condition of humanity - both physically and emotionally.

Mostly though, it’s a book that at its core is filled with so much heart and is so beautifully written, that you’ll be haunted by its contents for years to come.

The Girl with All the Gifts is the story of Melanie.

Melanie is a precocious little girl.  She’s clever, insatiably curious and is, by all rights, as normal as they come.

Except that she’s not.

You see, when’s she collected from the cell she resides in, she’s strapped in by two men, while the leader, Sergeant Parks, points a gun at a head. She accepts this even if she doesn’t quite understand it.

She even jokes that she won’t bite.

And while there is a revelation that is on the edge of waiting to be revealed, what Melanie doesn’t realise is that she actually can bite, and that given the right circumstances it seems to only be inevitable that she will.

Will she survive the condition that she lives with? Or will she succumb to the relentless hunger and emotionally brainlessness that plague others of her kind?

I first received an early review copy of The Girl with All the Gifts towards the end of last year. 

The tagline on the cover (the final cover doesn’t have this line on the front jacket) read as follows: “Melanie has a gift for us all. But it’s a secret.”

Now with a line like that, it’s hard not to be intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was even more sold on the concept.

With a deliberately vague description in the summary, I pretty much went into this book without really knowing what to expect.

When I closed the last page of the book, I came out feeling haunted by the events, but also strangely sad and uplifted at the same time.

In short, The Girl with All the Gifts is a book that I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.

Beautifully descriptive, while being simultaneously stark and bleak, this book is a zombie novel with so much beauty and heart amidst all the desolation.

Forget all the previous ones you’ve read – this book takes on the ethics of experimenting on live subjects and manages to evoke a sense of kinship with the high functioning non-humans, of which Melanie just so happens to be one.

In this book, the characters we get to know are as follows:

- Melanie: one of the many children being held at a military base – a kind of human battery farm if you will),

- Sergeant Eddie Parks: one of the main leaders in charge of patrolling the base and ensuring that everything runs smoothly), 

- Helen Justineau: the teacher whom Melanie comes to love, and

-Caroline Caldwell:  the ruthless scientist who, while searching for a cure for the zombie plague, doesn’t hesitate to use the highly-functioning “hungries” as experiments  to further her research).

- Kieren Gallagher: right hand to Sergeant Parks 

When a breach of the military control results in complete and utter chaos, this rag-tag team find themselves escaping into the wilderness in search of safety.

Of course, given that they’re in a post-apocalyptic world that’s been overtaken by a zombie plague, the concept of safety is a luxury. 

With very little food, weapons and having to deal with Melanie, whom they don’t trust given her nature, their journey to finding a safe harbour is fraught with tension, inevitable clashes and moments of deep despair.

In spite of this, what follows is an interesting journey, one that will have you cheering wholeheartedly for Melanie, high-fiving the take-no-crap-from-anyone Helen Justineau, reluctantly respecting the eminently practical Sergeant Parks, feeling sympathy for the green-as-grass Gallagher, while outright loathing Dr Caldwell. 

Melanie is a little darling of a girl.

She’s tough, resourceful and falls under the incredibly high-functioning scale of hungries (low scale being the ones who have no capability to feel any human emotion and only respond to scent triggers that alert them to prey).

Melanie is a girl who needs to eat flesh, but doesn’t want to. And it’s this that sets her apart, even though Parks, Gallagher and Caldwell are wary of her.

Her relationship with Helen is an added dynamic that humanises her and results in her being fiercely protective of Justineau in the midst of the worst kind of danger.

It takes a while but she eventually manages to reach an understanding with both Parks and Gallagher.

Caldwell on the other hand, is one of the most infuriating characters in this book. While I found myself with a modicum of understanding for the research work she wanted to do, my feelings were tempered by her selfish, ruthless and calculated coldness.

Her desire to get her hands on Melanie, at times, overrode her desire for everyone’s safety. 

There’s an interesting mythological element that plays a huge part in the conclusion of the book. It’s something that at first seems so insignificant when mentioned, but makes for an interesting twist at the end.

With that said, I really could go on and on about this book, but in the end, this is a book that needs to be experienced, and not read via review osmosis.
 

Do yourself a favour – pick it up. It might just become your new favourite book. I know it certainly is mine.

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