Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.
When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie is a very special girl.
A little ways into The Girl With All the Gifts, one of my coworkers asked what I was reading about, and I said it was an apocalypse survival story about a little girl who had some zombie traits and was going to unlock zombie immunity.
I was so wrong.
This contains about a million spoilers. Seriously, you should stop now and go read the book before I give the whole thing away.
I should admit that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of zombie stories, because I’m not at all interested in blood and gore and limbs coming off and all kinds of yuck. I like when internal organs stay on the inside, thanks very much. What attracted me to The Girl With All The Gifts was the world building, and I was completely pulled me into the post-breakdown society.
The beginning is told almost entirely from Melanie’s perspective, and she accepts without question that she will spend her days strapped in a wheelchair in class and her nights triple-locked into a cell. She also accepts that she will be sprayed down with disinfectant once a week and that she can do higher math and memorize facts with ease. This is the same kind of narration that I enjoyed in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time (Blogging! In case you want to reference book reactions you wrote 9 years ago!).
I began to see that Melanie and her classmates are high-functioning hungries, a mix of zombie and human. They retain their human minds — in most cases, becoming extra smart — instead of becoming brainless zombies, but also keep a zombie’s hunger for flesh. This is the part where I told my friend that the superpowered little girl was going to cure the zombie virus.
(I was so very wrong.)
Melanie’s favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, reads the hungry children stories and teaches them about the Greek myths, and encourages creative writing. She does everything a humanities teacher would do, on a science and research base, in post-Breakdown world, and teaching the kids myths and history turns out to be how she saves the world. Sort of.
After even the limited society of the research base breaks down, there is one scene where Miss Justineau punches a researcher who wants to run very important, very fatal experiments on Melanie, and I think that maybe readers were supposed to realize how far organized society has fallen when we have schoolteachers punching their scientist bosses in the face. But I don’t know, I kind of got it.
The book is set in post-apocalyptic England, so occasionally a place name would have a familiar ring from my time in London and Cambridge. After the battle in Stevenage, I couldn’t help hearing an echo of the Tube announcement This train is for Stevenage. My friend Jennette wrote about noticing all the Indy locations while reading The Fault Is In Our Stars, and while I don’t know that area anywhere nearly as well as Jennette knows Indy, the half-remembered place names made the fallen society even creepier.
Even though I’m not usually a huge fan of zombie survival stories, I really enjoyed the sections where survivors build and fortify their locations to prevent attack from hungries. I mean, the coworker who’d asked me about this book works with me at a certain game studio working on a game that involves a lot of this. I kind of wanted to shout instructions to the characters to build better and more hungry-proof bases.
When I am not working at that studio, though, I’m teaching middle-school kids. I’m not saying that I’d sign up to teach zombie children in the apocalypse — No, wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
The Girl With All The Gifts is so hopeful, telling the story of a young girl who’s constantly dreaming about being the rescuer and about having a nice safe home. It’s also so freaking desperate and hopeless, with society basically over and the few people left are alive by random chance, broken and wounded. The end of the novel manages to be both, and in reading such a right and appropriate ending, I wondered how I could have expected anything else.