I heard about this one from Melfka a writer, a reviewer and a friend – thank you very much for the tip!
Synopsis (mostly from Goodreads):
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. They treat her as if she was a dangerous animal or a loaded gun. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad but one day she finds out. And she is appalled.
This is a book about zombies. I usually steer clear of them because they are smelly, ugly and unhygienic not to mention unusually dumb. Their diet also leaves a lot of room for improvement. Still as The Girl with All the Gifts was recommended to me by a reliable, seasoned reader I decided to give it a try. I am very happy to say I don’t regret that decision, not in the slightest. It was a different zombie book.
In my humble opinion the success of Mr Carey’s story lies in the fact that he didn’t let himself being limited by the zombie horrors published or aired so far – he dared to think on his own. He also didn’t hesitate to give his novel a bunch of great, intelligent characters along with all those action scenes. Yes, characters are important even if your book is supposed to be action-driven.
Melanie, a hybrid child combining both human and zombie traits, is of course the linchpin here. Her personality is developed by a number of factors, positive and negative. She feels attachment to Helen Justineau, her beloved teacher who is kind, compassionate and understanding; she feels hatred and fear facing Caroline Caldwell, a scientist who has forgotten somehow that even scientists trying to save entire humankind need a working conscience. She listens avidly to Greek myths, read to the class by Helen, especially the one about Pandora, and dreams of emulating her favourite heroes. I did love the fact that the author chose Greek mythology as the source of inspiration for Melanie; after all these stories are full of ‘monsters’ who couldn’t help becoming monsters: Scylla, Charybdis, Medusa, Minotaur just to name few of them.
Both Helen and Caroline represent two opposite directions Melanie can follow; still neither one nor the other is completely good or completely bad. Helen might come across as the angelic teacher (who is also black) but she does have a darker side (pun intended and I am being deliberately vague in order not to spoil you). On the other hand Caroline, even though she performs vivisections on infected children with cold detachment worth any German Nazi death camp criminal, can also be brave and incredibly incisive. And she truly believes that the survival of entire humankind depends on the results of her experiments – compare THAT to deaths of several dozen children who are infected anyway (so, in her view, already dead, without any future) and then indeed her ‘tests’ might seem justified. Let me also mention the fact that Caroline’s scientific slang sounded very probable and true so it is obvious the author did his research properly.
Now, what didn’t work? The narrative voice I found from time to time a bit awkward (present tense third person singular? Five POVs? Really Mr. Carey?) and the male characters seemed to me far less enticing than the ladies I described above. It is indeed strange when I come to think about it – usually I carp about male authors not being able to construct life-like females in their books and here I felt the other way round. While sergeant Parks had his moments (few and far between but still) his side-kick and subordinate, private Gallagher, was a nonentity with red hair and a few sexual fantasies about older women. I couldn’t warm up to him even though he was given a chapter or two with his own POV.
Still the ending, which was unexpected and brilliant, sealed the deal for me. I don’t want to spoil you the pleasure of arriving there on your own, let me just add that it was bitter-sweet and completely logical as well.
More such books and I would start liking zombies in my fiction. I am waiting for the movie, based on this novel – I really want to watch it.