I read this a while ago and I don’t need to review it, but I’ve got all these notes on the novel that I wanted to share. You can read them individually. I’m have not included outright spoilers until the very last point, but a lot of what I have to say hints at the ending. With that in mind you may not want to read this unless you’ve read the book or watched the movie (although I don’t know if the movie has a different ending. Which would suck. I like this one).
The story: Melanie is a ten-year-old girl held prisoner in a high-security research facility after the world has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns humans into ‘rotting cannibals’ (104). Melanie is a child prodigy, but the only life she knows is one where armed soldiers didn’t strap her to a chair and wheel her into a classroom on a daily basis. She tries to be sweet and friendly to everyone, but sometimes it’s hard and some people scare her. She’s never seen anything outside of this underground prison and she doesn’t realise that it’s because she and the other kids with her are hybrids who have been infected with the fungus but somehow retained their intelligence and capacity for normal human interaction. They’re being studied in the hope of finding a cure, but when the facility is attacked, Melanie escapes with her teacher Miss Justineau, the head research scientist, and two soldiers.
It has been a strange, awkward experience to find myself in love with a zombie novel. I’d relegated the genre to pure entertainment and did not expect the depth of feeling or admiration for craft that I found in The Girl with all the Gifts. I expected only to be thrilled, not moved and intellectually engaged too. The characters are remarkably well-written and you care for them every step of the way as they grapple with the idea of who and what they are in an apocalypse. I love the way their motivations clash and converge to drive the story forward. Melanie, in particular, isn’t an ordinary narrator but a post-human child in existential crisis, discovering a dying world world at the same time as she realises she’s one of the creatures who ended it. Her point of view is fresh and fascinating.
Zombies are humanity’s death sentence. They’re almost always inescapable and they never just affect the protagonists; they affect the whole world. Even if a cure is found, the way infection spreads so easily, rapidly and violently always seems to suggest that it’s over no matter what. One infected person hidden away somewhere can easily start the process all over again. They’re an extinction event for intelligent life.
The Girl with all the Gifts shifts that narrative. It points out the ways in which life on Earth is already vile and we’re never going to do anything to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves and the planet. Zombies – or ‘hungries’, in this case – might be monsters, but we’re worse. What drove this point home is how despicable people in the novel can be, compared to the hungries. When everything goes to shit, it’s not because of hungries (although they’re obviously part of it) but because of the Junkers:
Survivalists who’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides survive. Parasites and scavengers […]. They don’t build, or preserve. They just stay alive. And their ruthlessly patriarchal structures reduce women to pack animals or breeding stock.
If that’s humanity’s last, best hope, then despair might actually be preferable. (216)
Then there are people like Dr Caldwell, whose dedication to finding a cure makes her just as abominable as the hungries. And Private Gallagher secretly wants to stay at the research facility because his family are violent drunks:
Private Kieran Gallagher knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate. Or maybe it’s just that his family was more given than most to letting its monsters come out and sniff the air.
The key that let them out was always the same: bootleg vodka […]
His father, and his brother Steve, and his cousin Jackie looked like normal human beings and even sometimes acted like them, but most of the time they veered between two extremes: reckless violence when they were drinking, and comatose somnolence when the drink wore off. (150)
Note how much their behaviour resembles the hungries’ in the way they’re either violent or inert. And as a result, Gallagher has to ask: which is he more afraid of? Dying out here, or going home? They’ve both got their terrors, about equally vivid in his mind. (151)
If anything, the fungus is a cure for the problem of humanity. And now that the human population no longer has the numbers to be harmful, society is stagnant, as Miss Justineau notes about the research facility where the story begins: ‘This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained subroutine’ (26).
Life only goes on, forcing its way back in, when the hungries break through the perimeter fence. Ironically, it’s only through them that anything good can happen. They set the plot in motion and revitalise life, rather than ending it (well, figuratively; there’s obviously a massive bodycount).
That said, the story still hinges on Melanie staying alive, and that doesn’t happen because of the hungries – it happens because of Miss Justineau. And she saves Melanie because she thinks of her as a human being. She disregards what everyone else has told her about the kids, defies all the warnings, and acts based on what she sees: intelligence, kindness, enthusiasm, wonder, love.
Dr Caldwell, on the other hand, ‘only sees what’s at the bottom of her test tubes’ (293) and she’d destroy the world in her effort to save it.
Melanie isn’t just a person but the best kind of person. Besides the fact that, like most hybrids, she’s stronger and faster than humans, she is ‘the girl with all the gifts’ because she has all the gifts that humanity prides itself on: love, compassion, curiosity, self-reflection, intelligence, a longing to engage with the world. And she wants to spread that around. What matters is that her love and optimism are infectious, not her bite, and she longs to learn and connect. She even devises a secret language to use with the other kids (although she doesn’t have a chance to teach it to them). The novel frequently reflects on language, words, meaning and communication. These things are the basis of civilisation and of civilised existence. At which Melanie excels but humans have failed.
Melanie can still be monstrous though; the book doesn’t try to make her cute. However, she’s never violent without reflection or remorse, and she’s usually only violent when defending the people she cares about. Of course she’s got an overwhelming need to consume flesh, but, 1. This is economical, because she can survive on very little and doesn’t even need water, and 2. The way she deals with this is important. Unlike hungries, she can control her urges, and unlike many humans she makes an effort to do so because she respects and cares about other people. When she goes on the run with Miss Justineau, Parks, Dr Caldwell and Gallagher, and realises what she is, she’s deeply concerned about hurting one of them. Especially Miss Justineau. Even Dr Caldwell. So she tries her hardest not to. And eventually she learns to manage her impulses. She doesn’t just give up because it’s ‘uncontrollable’ or because it’s ‘in her nature’. She deals with it so that she doesn’t hurt anyone by losing control. And that’s what makes her better than human.
One of my favourite character quotes is for Dr Caldwell, the novel’s antagonist: ‘In a world of rust, she comes up stainless steel’ (49). Which sounds cool, but also emphasises her cold, clinical nature. If Melanie is a compelling protagonist because she loves life and strives to connect with others, and Miss Justineau is a hero because she sees and responds to the children’s humanity, Caldwell is the antagonist because she can’t see Melanie and the other hungry kids as people and refuses to communicate with them as such. After failing to dissect Melanie, Caldwell wants to keep her alive only as a research specimen that Caldwell feels she owns. In this, Caldwell represents so much of what’s wrong with the humans. That tendency to dehumanise. To see others in terms of function and exploit them as such. To use people as a means to a goal. To refuse communication. Which is what Caldwell has done, in her search for a cure:
If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road. (359)
This sounds a bit like a criticism of relentless scientific pursuit, given that Caldwell is the scientist in the group, but I think it’s more about Caldwell’s narrow-minded cruelty in the pursuit of a single goal. A goal she cannot re-evaluate when faced with the reality of the children. Early on in the novel, she dissects two hungry children without anaesthetic (it doesn’t work on them), cutting their vocal cords so they can’t make a noise. And the children remain alive after they’ve been cut up in ways that would kill a human.
It’s telling that when the hungries attack, Caldwell is injured and literally begins the journey that takes up the rest of the novel with blood on her hands. Her own blood. And those wounds are painful and incapacitating, as if to get blood on your hands is inevitably to hurt yourself.
Despite all this, Caldwell isn’t a perfectly horrible villain. You can understand where she’s coming from and even admire her work ethic, and I like that her character is rounded in that way. Pure evil is infuriating to read.
Caldwell gets criticised for playing god, and God – the biblical version – gets mentioned a lot. Zeus and a few others come up too. They’re all criticised for their cruelty, stupidity or negligence. Notably, Melanie idolises Miss Justineau as a god-like figure too, and it’s easy to understand why, but we get to see Justineau as the flawed and fallible human she is. Suggesting that our gods, if they exist at all, were never what we wanted them to be.
This quote, about Miss Justineau’s decision to protect Melanie:
some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl, ‘I’m here for you,’ the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. (66)
I like this because it shows us how Miss Justineau wasn’t just automatically a strong hero figure who was always going to be there for Melanie because it was the right thing to do. She is not static. If she hadn’t said anything, she might have let Caroline Caldwell kill Melanie simply because it’s easier and safer to do nothing. But by voicing that idea of compassion and morality, she makes herself into the person she needs to be for the story to continue.
I like this one too:
she’s turned her back on something inside herself, and Melanie is the sign of that – the anti-Isaac she snatched from the fire to prove to God that he doesn’t always get to call the shots.
Fuck you Caroline. (116)
And I like that Justineau isn’t always resolute about her actions:
Why? Why did she do that? (25)
If she hadn’t talked to the kids about death that day. If she hadn’t read them ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and if they hadn’t asked what being dead was like, then she wouldn’t have stroked Melanie’s hair and none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have made a promise she couldn’t keep and couldn’t walk away from. She could be as selfish as she’s always been, and forgive herself the way everybody else does, and wake up every day as clean as if she’d just been born. (152)
The book isn’t all violence and existentialist crises. I was delighted by this little moment from Sergeant Parks:
Parks lights the range with a spark struck from a tinderbox – an honest-to-God tinderbox; that has to be centuries old – produced from his pocket with something suspiciously like a flourish. (202)
It’s the last bit that makes it perfect: ‘something suspiciously like a flourish’. Parks is never just that hardheaded soldier type who only sees the world in terms of military objectives (a character type I can’t stand), even though that’s the impression he’s given to Justineau. Here we see the characters taking a much-needed break (giving us a breather too), and we get this hint of how much we might like Parks if we saw him in another life. That’s good writing – giving us the sense that these characters are people beyond the story we see them in.
One last point, and it has a SPOILER for the ending:
In the book, Melanie is blonde, blue-eyed and ‘bone-white’ (26). For the 2016 movie they cast a black actor (Sennia Nanua), which I would argue is essential, and not only because the aesthetic of such unnervingly pale skin would certainly have jarred with the likeability of her character. It’s necessary because Melanie becomes the leader of a group of hungry children and begins the process of teaching them a formalised language. You can assume that once this group is sufficiently organised, she’s going to find other kids. And since she’d be one of very, very few educated hungry kids, if there are any others in the world at all, she may be the only one forming an educated society. Melanie is, essentially, the architect of a new world. And for that reason, it’s very, very important that she not look … Aryan.
Or even white. Of course, race probably would not matter in whatever world they build, but it’s still significant for readers and viewers now.
On the other hand, I’m not sure why they chose a white actress (Gemma Arterton) to play Miss Justineau, who is black in the book. A case of the producers worrying about having too many black leads on screen? Oh the horror …