"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.I first read the extended free version sample(10 chapters) of The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey in May and was absolutely taken in by the author's fresh approach to what are basically the makings of an old horror tale. I had such a positive response to the short version that I actually became anxious to read the entire novel. The novel lived up to my expectations. There are different reasons behind that:
Now she's ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skin as white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she'll be beautiful, with princes falling over themselves to climb her tower and rescue her."
1) The relationship between the two main characters.
The growing attachment between ten-year-old Melanie and her teacher Ms. Justineau is central to the story. Although Melanie is confused as to whom or what she is, her IQ is also off the charts, and she is strong-willed and tenaciously protective of Ms. Justineau, just as Ms. Justineau is protective of Melanie. Yet, I believe that what makes this very tense, fast-paced action, horror thriller a particularly effective read is the heavy contrast between the unexpected poignancy that stems from Melanie's unconditional love for her teacher, and the dangerous situations and dark revelations unfolding around her.
In the beginning, Melanie thinks she's a normal little girl. She lives in a cell, just like the other children, and is only allowed out when Sergeant and his men strap her on a wheelchair and take her to eat or to classes for the day. Her best days are Ms. Justineau days! Until one chaotic day everything changes, and every day is a Ms. Justineau day. Helen Justineau knows what Melanie is and why she's in that cell, and although she's part of a team and understands the dangers that go with her position, she disregards warnings and dangers and comes to see Melanie as 'just a child.’ Protecting Melanie, helping her navigate dangers inside and outside the compound where they both live, becomes her mission.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a post apocalyptic piece set in the UK, however, it is clear that years earlier the Breakdown was a global event that devastated civilization when the majority humans were infected by the “hungry” pathogen. There are pockets of isolated humans restricted to living in small towns and a few cities such as Beacon, and “Junkers,” gangs of humans who go about freely throughout the countryside and cities looting for hardware and goods in order to survive. But communication is down to the old basics and no one really knows who or what is left out there.
The basis for the world-building may sound familiar, however, Carey’s book strikes me as distinctive in that he doesn’t take unnecessary shortcuts. Carey uses science by incorporating biological details that explain how the hungry pathogen derived from Cordyceps works and evolves, adding scientific methodology used to study mutations, as the logical steps to arrive at the beginning point of the story, and later to its logical conclusion. He does so without sacrificing high level tension by weaving those excellent details with the fast-paced action and horror aspects found in the novel.
3) Secondary Characters:
Speaking of horror, I was more horrified by a human character's actions than the natural reaction of the infected "hungries." The ‘human monster’ is a familiar character whose motivations are usually portrayed as black and white because, no matter the consequences, they are always able to rationalize their actions. Although the ‘moral’ question is sometimes introduced, as was the case here, for the ‘human monster’ the conclusion is almost always the same: the end justifies the means. However, there's also a redemptive quality to another central secondary character that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.
Melanie is a child and as such she dreams of princes rescuing her from her tower. Her little life turns out to be much different from how she imagined it would be once she gets out of her cell and discovers the reality of her world. But like Pandora's box when it is opened, once brilliant, courageous Melanie emerges, good or bad, the world will never be same.
“Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.
But you have to open it to find that out.”