The girl with all the gifts…
Imagine, if you can, the movies (or books) ‘World War Z’ merged with ‘Day of the triffids’. That is what this debut novel by M.R. Carey (a pen name) is kind of like – but also still original, which is quite a feat to achieve with the proliferation of zombie stories in the last few years.
It’s narrated mostly from the perspective of Melanie, a young girl being held under armed guard in a fortified military base in England. All she’s ever known is her cell and ‘the classroom’, where various teachers instruct a group of children. Every so often, a few of the children go to see Dr Caldwell and they never come back. Melanie has often put her genius intellect to the task of discovering more about her limited world, helped by her beloved teacher, Helen Justineau, whom she loves.
Set on Earth at some indeterminate time when a fungal-type virus has overtaken the human species, most humans are now “hungries” (zombies). If you’re bitten by, or exposed to bodily fluids from a hungry, you will quickly become one. The hungries suffer an insatiable hunger, which prevents all thought, and have only two states; dormant, or if they catch your scent or movement, super fast. Too fast to outrun. However, there are also another kind of hungry – children who have been infected, but still retain a personality and cognitive abilities. They can choose whether or not to give in to the hunger.
Turns out, Melanie is one of these hungries and the base is a laboratory, established far from the one remaining city, where Dr Caldwell is trying to find the cause and/or cure. She is experimenting on her collection of hungry children – observing their behaviour, whether they can learn, and then dissecting them. The next child due for dissection is Melanie – but Miss Justineau saves Melanie at the last-minute, and then the base is suddenly attacked by ‘junkers’ (feral humans). Only Melanie, Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell, and two soldiers survive. They are on the run from the junkers and trying to make it back to the main base in the city, without ending up as zombie food.
During this fraught and dangerous journey, Dr Caldwell gets her first opportunity to observe hungries in the field, and makes an astounding discovery. Hungries can breed. And she also sees her first advanced cases, when the host has been completely consumed by the virus and a fungal tree grows out of their undead bodies, fruiting spore balls that just await a trigger to release into the global atmosphere – which will spell the end of humanity.
Meanwhile, Melanie is learning at an astounding rate, and is also exhibiting an unprecedented level of control over her hungry tendencies. Her relationship with Miss Justineau and the soldiers changes to one of trust, and understanding, while she continues to fear Dr Caldwell. There is little chance the humans in the group will survive the journey, until they chance upon a portable laboratory ‘motor home’ which is fully self-contained, armed, and fuelled. Dr Caldwell jumps at the chance to complete her studies – all she needs is a sample of brain tissue from a hungry child. Will it be Melanie? Or will Melanie find a way to save the human race from her own species?
This is one of those books that you just can’t stop reading, and lingers in your thoughts long after. Melanie is an amazing character, and the scenario that M.R. Carey paints is perhaps all too realistic. If you like zombies, horror fiction or dystopias, then this is a must read. 9/10.