There is a consensus among many readers and critics that the post-apocalyptic novel has passed its apogee. In this vision, the genre is likened to a fire that burned fierce and fast and is even now guttering out. I don't subscribe to this notion, as it relies too much on the fashionableness of genre and too little on the quality of story. But to take up the metaphor, one may respond that a dying fire is still capable of beautiful flames. To leave metaphor aside, we can say that a writer practiced at his craft and knowledgeable of the field can, from the tail end of a genre's heyday, survey what has come before and produce something inventive and affecting, and which helps us see ourselves anew. For the most part, M. R. Carey is such a writer, and his novel The Girl with All the Gifts is very nearly such a book.
The plot follows Melanie, a unique young girl who hero worships her teacher, Miss Justineau. The adoration is understandable, because Miss Justineau is the only person in Melanie's life who is kind to her. This is because Melanie, as well as her fellow students/inmates, is infected with a variant strain of the ophiocordyceps fungus, known in popular science as the zombie ant fungus. This particular strain has adapted to humans and attacks the nervous system and brain, overriding the host's ability to think or act and forcing it to fulfill the fungus's need for sustenance. In keeping with the fungus's drive to propagate, the sustenance the infected—called "hungries"—crave most is the flesh of non-infected humans.
Civilization has largely collapsed, with survivors hiding behind walls in fortified cities like Beacon or barely surviving in the wild as "junkers," savage nomads reminiscent of the marauders from The Road Warrior. But Melanie, and a few children like her, are different. Ophiocordyceps riddles her brain, and if she smells human pheromones—which the people around her mask with "e-blocker" and chemical showers—she can be overpowered by the urge to feed, but otherwise she is fully aware and in control. A high-functioning zombie, of sorts. And, more importantly, the answer to solving the global pandemic and saving the human race may be contained within the cells of her brain. Which is why Melanie and the rest of the children are imprisoned: they're on a military base run by a scientist, Dr. Caldwell. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are only there to provide stimuli and analyze the children's psychological responses to try to determine what makes them different. When the children outlive their usefulness, or when Dr. Caldwell needs more tissue samples for study, the children are dissected.
Melanie is unaware of this, and initially her obliviousness to the outside world—she memorizes all the capitals of Europe and their populations, without a clue that those cities no longer exist—and the disconnect between that and the greater knowledge of readers is engaging and interesting. When two of her classmates disappear and never return, for example, we know that they have not, as Melanie hopes, gone to a different school with new children. The poignancy of her hope held against our knowledge to the contrary is moving. But this begins to stretch thin and unnecessarily long: Dr. Caldwell decides to dissect Melanie, who is strapped down and under the knife when hungries assault the base and try to eat everyone except her. After that, even after experiencing the aching longing she gets when she smells human pheromones, and despite demonstrating her brilliance in other ways—Caldwell calls her "our little genius" (p. 28)—it takes Melanie half the book to realize what she is. And once she does, she hides this "big secret" from the four adult survivors of the base attack.
We might ascribe her delayed epiphany to the innocence of a child, but Melanie is too smart and mature for such blind innocence. For example, after she escapes the base we're told she knows "home is just an idea now to be visited in memories but not ever again found in the way you find your ground and stand on it and know that it's yours" (pp. 135-6)—so she's no longer a simple, wide-eyed child, if she ever was. At the base, the only time she's not secured in her cell is when a team of soldiers straps her in to a wheelchair while training guns on her; after her escape, she is handcuffed, muzzled, and leashed, and she knows this is to protect the others from herself—but doesn't draw the obvious conclusion.
My suspicion is that this delayed realization is meant to draw out sympathy from the readers, as well as tension for the eventual reveal, but when the moment of Melanie's awareness does come it has lost all its impact. Later, once she decides to tell the others, it's a darkly comic moment that I wish had come much sooner: "I'm different because I don't want to eat anyone," she says on p. 229, followed by this amendment a page later: "Sometimes I need to eat people. I never want to." A little later, she faces her harsh new reality head on, but colors it with the imagination that makes her so interesting: "Beacon won't take her. Or else it will take her and break her down in pieces. Miss Justineau's happy ending isn't hers. She'll have to leave Miss J soon, and go off into the world to seek her fortune. She'll be like Aeneas, running way from Troy after it fell and sailing the seas" (p. 257).
Melanie is by far the most interesting character in the book, even though we often see chapters from the points of view of the other four survivors. The doctor and two soldiers are mostly stereotypical cutouts: Caldwell is the scientist willing to do whatever it takes to save the world; Private Gallagher is the scared greenhorn who is eager to please his commanding officer; Sergeant Parks is the grizzled veteran who is tasked with ensuring the security of a group of civilians who simply won't obey orders. And they do have some interesting flaws: in the early days of the scourge, when the greatest minds were gathered for a vaunted mission to save the world, Caldwell was almost selected; Gallagher never knew the world before and is fascinated by its music, while the source of much of his fear is a father and uncle who routinely got drunk on homemade rotgut and beat him as a child; Parks had one job—protecting the base—and his failure to do so makes him that much more obsessed with protecting his tiny contingent of survivors. Beyond these obstacles, however, there's little development of these characters. Carey knows they each need something to show what makes them tick, but doesn't give enough space on the page to make them fully real.
Miss Justineau is the exception to this pattern—at first. She is torn between her fear of what Melanie and the other students could do and the attachment she develops after working with them. This is further complicated by knowing what Dr. Caldwell does to the students who are taken away. While on the road, Miss Justineau grows even closer to Melanie, despite the gulf between them and the ever present danger of crossing it. We see her as empathetic, conflicted, full of self-doubt but still a good person. And then we're told her thing: just before the Breakdown, late one night she hit a boy with her car and drove away: "If you turn my life into an equation," she tells Sergeant Parks, "the number that comes out is minus one. That's my lifetime score, you understand me? . . . whether it means anything or not, I will die my own self before I let you take me down to minus two" (p. 222). What's so disappointing about this confession is not just that Justineau offers it up herself as an explanation for why Melanie means so much to her, but that it is completely hollow. There's nothing there about how amazing Melanie is, or how much Melanie feels for Miss Justineau, or anything that acknowledges the girl's complex personality or even her personhood. Instead it's a cold equation: I killed a boy, so I will save this girl. We don't need to distill this interesting character down to her lowest common denominator, particularly not this far into the book, but that's what we get.
I only have one real complaint about the novel, and the tendency to explain everything about a person with one or two past events is a subset of that larger gripe: despite a fresh concept and original protagonist, the plot makes use of disappointingly familiar tropes. There are the stereotyped characters with their disappointingly easy explanations; just as disappointing are the Really Bad Ideas that drive the plot in so many Hollywood films: after being pursued by a mob of hundreds of hungries and trapping themselves on the second floor of a large building, the group finds a bottle of brandy and sits around drinking. They then split up, and two of them head to the rooftop to finish the bottle, leaving Melanie with Caldwell, who wants very much to dissect her. There are also Heartwarming Moments, such as when scared soldier Gallagher reads a picture book to child/monster Melanie, who never knew her parents and never had a book read just for her. And then there's the moralistic Just Deserts: Gallagher deserts the group and, while being tracked by hungries, ducks into a convenience store to hide; inside, he sees a porno magazine, so of course he can't help but ignore his situation and flip through every page, unaware of the hungries filling the shop. And slightly later, immediately after they finally sleep together, hungries break in on Miss Justineau and Sergeant Parks, which leads to a chase scene that ends with Melanie arriving just in time to save Miss J but not Parks, who is bitten and infected.
While these moments frustrated me, the book was still eminently enjoyable and on occasion deeply moving. When the struggling and infected Parks hands Melanie his revolver and asks her to shoot him, everything else falls into the background; it's a horrifying, beautiful scene full of raw emotions from both characters. And earlier in the book, Miss Justineau's reflection on death approaches the profound:
She thinks about all the children in the world who ever died without growing up. There must have been billions of them. Hecatombs of children, apocalypses, genocides of them. In every war, every famine, thrown to the wall. Too small to protect themselves, too innocent to get out of the way. . . . Every adult grew from a kid who beat the odds. But at different times, in different places, the odds have been appallingly steep. And the dead kids drag at every living soul. A weight of guilt you haul around with you like the moon hauls the ocean, too massive to lift and too much a part of you to ever let it go. (p. 152)
What Miss Justineau touches on here is echoed by several other characters. The taciturn Parks, seldom given to insight or sarcasm, offers a bit of both when he reflects on the real cause for the fall of civilization: "We couldn't kill the hungries, so we killed ourselves. That was always our favorite party trick" (p. 240). But ultimately it's Melanie who holds the mirror up to readers and makes us question who the real monsters are. The name for the infected—hungries—works on several levels. I like it best as a reflection on modern society, on the drive, the hunger, to feed and rise even or especially when there is no need or purpose. We see how hollow this is when Melanie reflects on the infected: "Yesterday she thought that the hungries were likes houses that people used to live in. Now she thinks that every one of those houses is haunted. She's not just surrounded by the hungries. She's surrounded by the ghosts of the men and women they used to be" (p. 234).
The book's title refers to Pandora, which Melanie is told translates to "the girl with all the gifts." Melanie takes the story of Pandora to heart, and identifies with the heroine/villain. With this in mind, the conclusion of the book is not so much surprising as it is inevitable. It's bleak but still just a touch hopeful. Carey eschews the obvious and clichéd ending, and the book is all the better for it. I only wish he'd thought a little more about the characters and storyline throughout the text.
That aside, the book shows that claims of the death of post-apocalyptic stories are premature and makes an argument for the continued resonance of such tales. Carey twists a familiar genre in fresh ways, and shows us a frightful world through the eyes of someone who should be the enemy but may instead be our savior. The novel is well-written, occasionally beautifully so, and Melanie makes this is a very good book well worth reading. But for the reliance on all too familiar tropes, it might have been a great book.