Notes on The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts

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 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 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 …

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Weblog #4: On being interesting

It’s been slow going with my current read, Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. The novel is a philosophical mystery that focuses on minute detail, such as the microscopic evidence collected from a missing man’s keyboard or simulating the gesture of slowly raising a coffee cup to the lips and taking a sip. The corporate world of the narrative also has a Kafkaesque absurdity to it, and the main character, the Inspector, can’t be sure if he’s talking to the people he thinks he’s talking to, or actors hired to stand in for them. It doesn’t seem to matter though; the actors come up with excessively detailed imaginings of what the actual person might have thought or done and their testimonies appear to be just as relevant – and insane – as what passes for fact.

I was intrigued, until the Inspector got mired in the tiniest of details, while every one of his encounters seemed meaninglessly mad. He couldn’t move the investigation forward, and the plot went loopy without getting anywhere. I’m a bit of a pedantic reader so I don’t do well with absurdist narratives where you can’t take things literally the way you normally would and the whole point is that you don’t know what’s going on (or at least not on the first read). It wasn’t until I accepted that and just kept reading that I managed to make decent progress.

Then, suddenly, the pace picked up and the book piqued my interest again. Why? Because the Inspector calls Isabella, the forensic analyst he’s been working with.

She revitalises the narrative partly because comfortingly level-headed in comparison to the Inspector’s increasingly wobbly mental state. Her reappearance grounded me when I felt like I was losing my grip on the book. What really struck me though was the force of her passion for her work, and the way she gives us other ways of looking at the world:

We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars! […] I hate it. That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. […] We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. […] The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. […] If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.

This passage, on page 112, is actually what convinced me to buy the book. I’d read an article suggesting that, instead of judging a book by its cover or its first page, you should read page 112. The idea is that lesser books have a lapse in the middle, so if page 112 is good, then the book is more likely to be good from beginning to end. And that’s where I found Isabella, with an idea that took me all the way to the till and, now, to Part Two of the book.

The Inspector is no less dedicated than her, but his is more of a plodding determination while she is bold, refreshing, animated. You can see her getting fired up but it’s hard to imagine him laughing or losing his temper.

In Lauren Beukes’s short piece ‘On Beauty: A Letter to My Five-Year-Old Daughter’ (2014) she writes, ‘You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you’.

Interesting because you are interested. That’s what I like about Isabella and that’s how she gives the narrative the energy it needs to get out of the doldrums.

Interesting because you are interested. This came to mind again when I was thinking about Melanie, the main character in The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I think she’s an easy to character to love because she’s fascinated by life. At the beginning of the novel she doesn’t even know what it’s like to be outside, but she hangs on to every word she hears from the adults around her (not realising that she’s a prisoner being held for experimental purposes) and uses that to construct a physical, moral and sociopolitical landscape. For her, even the tiniest pieces of information we take for granted – such as the date or someone’s first name – can change the architecture of the world, as Carey phrases it.

Her interest isn’t restricted to learning; it gives her a great capacity for compassion and love, but also the strength to protect what she loves or take whatever action her moral compass points to. And, like Isabella, her enthusiasm means she offers us great ideas and dynamic ways of looking at things. Someone with less interest, someone less interesting, is just going to see things the way most other people already do. They’re more likely to bore us, I suppose, because they can’t give us anything other than the stories we hear all the time.

Weblog #3 – On picking something to read and giving people a chance

Personal goals:
Take time to relax without thinking, I should be working.
Read a book.

I can’t seem to finish anything though. (“When are you going to write a book Lauren?” Hahahahahahaha, SHUT UP.) My last few reads – The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Slipping by Lauren Beukes – were like hot dates that hit all my sweet spots. I disappeared into them in a haze of Oh my god, this is so fucking good, and now I want the next book to give me that same experience.

This is not an expectation I want to harbour. It’s unfair. It’s like meeting someone and wanting them to have all the qualities you’ve ascribed to your perfect partner in the isolation tank that is your mind (I absolutely do not ever do this. *coughs*). Few books are going to have that effect, and you can’t predict which ones will, especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. It’s not just about the content or the quality of the book either, but the time you give it and when you happen to read it. Your life right now is part of the reading process. I love the title story of Slipping because the protagonist chooses to keep sprinting after she’s knocked down and broken in the middle of a race, and her heart literally starts slipping out of her cybernetically modified chest. I read ‘Slipping’ right after someone I thought was a friend told me I wasn’t worth any time or effort, and the story described, better than I could, exactly how that had made me feel. On a different day, ‘Slipping’ might have been a good story instead of a great one.

But I couldn’t know what those books would do for me, and I didn’t read them expecting to find what I did. I just opened up and got to know them for what they were. Also, it took two or three false starts before I finished The Liminal People and The Girl With All the Gifts, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have finished Slipping if I hadn’t agreed to write a review. Yet instead of giving another book the same courtesy, I sought recurrence by specifically trying to identify an exceptional book perfectly suited to my preferences in the moment. I read a few pages here, tried something else there, and did nothing but waste enough time to finish several novels.

So I reverted to the strategy that kept this blog going for years: pick something and finish it. No matter what it’s like. Even if it fails to impress me right away or there are things I don’t like about it. Nothing out there was written just for me. But my book collection is at least curated – almost everything on my shelf and the majority of the content on my Kindle is there because I want to read it. So why don’t I? Each book and short story has the potential to be something I love. I had to just pick one and give it a chance. I used to select reads according to publishing dates and reading challenges, but those don’t matter right now so I had to find other criteria. It didn’t really matter what they were if my only goal was to just bloody read a book.

 

Infinite-Ground

I chose Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. It’s the last new book that I bought. It sounds fascinating but I bought it largely because it’s beautiful, and it feels good to hold something beautiful. It also cost a lot of money that I couldn’t quite afford (and would really appreciate having back in my wallet right now), so I wanted it to do something more than sit pretty on my shelf with nothing to show but its spine.

No one seems to like this strategy. People often insist that life is too short to read bad books. They declare that a book has fifty pages or three chapters or whatever to hook them and then it’s over. Which is fine if reading is just a casual hobby, but I wouldn’t have a career if I was that fussy or demanding, if I didn’t read bad books and learn from them. Nor would I love my favourites as much as I do if they didn’t stand out against a background of mediocrity and shit. It’s no use having an attitude that says, Be great or begone.

And in my next life goal, I’ll try to be that considerate with people, too.