Review: The Girl With All The Gifts

The Girl With All The Gifts

Title: The Girl With All The Gifts
Author: M.R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Year originally published:  2014

Melanie is a very smart little girl. She loves classical mythology and her teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s a normal child. Except that the guards muzzle and shackle her to her desk when they drop her off in the classroom. They make her take stinging chemical showers once a week. They serve her bowls of wriggling grubs for her weekly meal. Oh – and Melanie completely loses her cool when she smells human flesh.

The Girl With All The Gifts is based around a fantastic concept. These are zombies, but not as we know them. Some rules apply – hapless humans are still zombie-fied by fatal bites from so-called ‘hungries’. But this time, not all the zombies are mindless. Neither are they infected via traditional means, that is by a bacterial strain or a virus, but – and this is brilliant – by a variant of the Cordyceps fungus. I first learned about Cordyceps on David Attenborough’s BBC series Planet Earth (which is, by the way, really worth a watch). As you’ll see in this short clip, the fungus invades and takes over the body of the insect to propagate itself further. It’s ingenious. Carey utilises the same chilling idea in his novel to rationalise the zombie epidemic, and the result is fascinating. The idea of human-controlling fungus is one I’ve seen before with the sentient morel in Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, but Carey develops this and, dare I say, betters it. I actually spent the novel hoping for more malevolent fungus developments, and was extremely pleased with the conclusion of the novel.

It is not only the rationale behind the formation and drive of the zombies that feels well designed. The structure of the novel is beautifully planned out so that the exposition is revealed to us little by little, making for some wonderfully ominous twists; Carey does this by writing the first half from Melanie’s limited perspective, allowing us to gradually learn about the frightening situation that mankind has found itself in. As well as experimenting with established tropes of zombie horror, Carey also plays with well-known literary relationships; for instance, the rapport between Miss Justineau and Melanie bears resemblance to that between Miss Honey and Matilda – a pair transplanted into the most horrific of circumstances.

My verdict:
This is a brilliantly creepy, well-thought-out take on the classic zombie horror. The Girl With All The Gifts is a truly compelling read. Eerie and heartbreaking, it’s up there with The Secret History as one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, and has already taken its place among my favourite horror novels.

Review: The Road

Cormac McCarthy The Road

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Publisher: Picador
Year originally published: 2006

Even though it’s been half a month since my last review, I’ve been reading a crazy amount. Blame my new official ‘unemployed’ status (having graduated at the end of June) for the glut of new blood on my bookshelf and in my Kindle.

On The Road had been on my TBR list for a good year or so, but while in the throes of finals, I couldn’t quite bear to put myself through the misery of struggling through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Because, when boiled down to its very base elements, that is what The Road is. A father and a son – deliberately nameless, referred to only as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, but no less memorable for their lack of names – fight to stay alive in a burned landscape where self-immolations and cannibalism have become an everyday reality. Throughout the novel we see men and women – whether organised bands of thugs or individuals acting out of desperation – snatch and devour children and imprison fellow humans as a food source. Inevitably, the very pursuit of survival and its means renders such people inhuman. The boy and the man come into contact with these monsters as well as barely-living shells of former people constantly while on the Road, on their journey south in search of food, and warmer climes. The man tries to shield his son from numerous atrocities, adamant that they are ‘the good guys’, and intent on instilling moral codes in his son even in this horrifying world. This all raises the question of whether in the face of such desolation, it is preferable to embrace the means of survival, even if it means sacrificing one’s soul – or to continue to preserve one’s humanity, even if it means death.

My verdict:
This may be a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it definitely isn’t the type you’d find lurking on the YA shelves in your local bookshop. The Road is grim. Yet it’s exactly the story’s unwaveringly bleak tone which continued to draw me in. Here is a novel that, while set in a nightmare world, focuses on the all-encompassing relationship between father and son. While the desecration of the landscape they inhabit may be unfamiliar to us, the all-pervading message is clear. Every character the father and son meet, like them – and like us – will die in the end. It is this dose of devastating realism which hit home hardest for me. One day, I might have to accept it.