Minor spoilers regarding early part of novel ahead…
I’ve not personally overdosed on zombie movies/games/books/TV shows/tee shirts etc. but because the rest of the world has, I’ve got a second-hand kind of weariness of it, so much so I have tried to avoid it. I’ve done the odd George Romero, loved Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, but then I’d had enough.
I was thus in the glorious state of not actually knowing that The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R.Carey, is a book set in a world overrun with zombies. I didn’t know what Melanie, the young protagonist, was, as the blurb was thankfully vague, but don’t worry, it’s not a big spoiler.
So anyway, imagine my delight when I couldn’t put the damn book down.
This is a zombie novel with a great big heart and a conundrum. Why are so many people zombies in the classic moronic sense, and why are some, like Melanie, full of empathy and good at quadratic equations?
Soon enough the story becomes about Melanie, her beloved teacher Miss Justineau, a scientist and a couple of soldiers forced on the run. The big heart comes from Carey’s great characters, who, despite being somewhat stereotypical (the kind teacher, the cold scientist, the hardened sergeant, the nervous rookie) nevertheless have their flaws and ‘soft sides’ exposed through their travails. It’s effortlessly done, and you’re rooting for the whole not-so-merry band all the way along. Melanie’s presence, exemplifying this unique take on the zombie mythos, adds a delicious tension between them, as well as her own unique struggle as she learns and then has to deal with what she is. Indeed, they are all challenged by her, and it should be obvious to most readers that there’s a clear message here about prejudice, ignorance and humanity more generally.
Though I do have limited reading in the genre, I thought Carey’s ’cause’ of the zombie plague was engaging and fairly plausible and it is critical to their challenges and the highly satisfying and surprising conclusion.
The other interesting thing about the novel was the narration itself. I didn’t sense a consistent voice but the character of that voice came across as though it was a mate telling you it all down the pub; the narrator doesn’t come across as typically dispassionate. It reminded me of Wolf Hall, the sense of the narrator being one of the characters telling their story in the third person. It certainly lent a warmth to the storytelling here, and as with Mantel’s book, you feel a bit closer to the characters where this technique is adopted and it led to some lovely phrases:
“(strings) wrapped loosely around and around the little corpse as though the rat had decided to try to be an octopus then hadn’t known how to stop”
“Melanie thinks: when your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.”
There are plenty of beautiful phrases like these throughout the novel that elevate it without clogging it up. I felt there was one off note later on in the book, a scene with one of the soldiers, of which I’ll say no more but it did so stick out like a sore thumb I’m still wondering what Carey was thinking, but that aside, I don’t hesitate to recommend it to you for a gripping summer read.