Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Girl With All the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

I've been hesitant to describe Gifts as a zombie novel because I think that term can turn certain readers off. And, of course, on a basic level, Gifts is a zombie novel. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic near future where "hungries" have destroyed much of the human population. A small enclave of non-infected live on a base, doing research on a group of children with a strange abnormality: they're infected but not mindless killers. Sure, they'll eat and destroy you if they get a whiff of your natural smell and aren't restrained, but otherwise they're normal children. Besides that, like other zombie novels, Gifts includes plenty of violence and gore.

But where Gifts diverges is in its protagonist, 10-year-old Melanie, who's one of the base's research subjects. What makes the novel so chilling at first is that Melanie has no idea she's a hungry and has known no life where she's not restrained with guns at her during all human contact. The highlight of her life is Miss Justineau, one of the teachers assigned to the children. Because Miss Justineau is the only adult to show the children warmth and kindness, Melanie idolizes and adores her.

Other novels have certainly used sympathetic zombies as their protagonists, but Melanie's age and innocence make her feel somewhat different. I noted in recent reviews that, for some reason, I keep reading books about child abuse (a cruel trick of the universe as I glance over at my sweet 8-week-old daughter, asleep beside me). Reading about the cruelty inflicted on Melanie was almost impossibly hard, but Carey does work to show the perspective of others whose world has been destroyed.

To do so, though Melanie is the focus of most of the novel, Carey also switches perspectives to Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks (in charge of security at the base), and Dr. Caldwell (the lead researcher). The changes in viewpoints keep Parks and Caldwell from being utter villains, though their redemption (well, maybe partial redemption in Caldwell's case) comes slowly.

The pace is fast with cliffhangers ending most of the relatively short chapters. The mystery around the truth of who Melanie is soon gives way to an on-the-run adventure. Enough of the zombie world building is different to keep things fresh.

If I have any quibble, it's that Melanie is extremely intelligent and mature for her age (though that's acknowledged in the book), and she's perhaps too perfect. However, the adults are much more messy, and the whole novel is so engrossing, that I didn't really mind.

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