For all her albeit short life, Melanie’s days begin the exact same way. She wakes up in her cell and waits for the Sergeant to bark “TRANSFER.” She then gets up, sits in her chair while Sergeant and his men strap her in, legs, arms and head. He wheels her down the hallways so she can attend classes with her fellow children, all also in their respective chairs, learning about a range of subjects from Greek mythology to the population growth of local English cities. She must never be touched. Every sunday she and the children receive intense chemical baths and sit in the dark, waiting. Occasionally the head of the compound, Dr. Caldwell, requests to see some of the children.
They never come back.
Melanie yearns to know more of the outside world, but her only friendly confidante, her teacher Ms. Justineau, has been getting more and more depressed, and Dr. Caldwell’s requests have been becoming more frequent.
If this summary at all sounds interesting to you, and you enjoy sci-fi/dystopian/horror-esque novels you should read this book. I would love to say more, in fact will say more, but here I have to put up a spoiler warning. Normally I don’t consider plot points to be spoilers if they happen in the first quarter of the book, but normally also those plot points are mentioned somewhere in the book summary and don’t change your worldview on what’s happening. About a quarter of the way through this book, a reveal is made about the world we’re in and why the children are being treated the way they are. I loved this book. It was an excellent exploration of the price humanity pays in order to protect itself and the moral quandaries that comes with that price. Butttt…….. to talk at all about why I loved it so much, I have to let you know about that one reveal. So if you will be bothered by that or want to go into the book blind like I did, stop now, know that I loved the book, and come back if you want AFTER you’ve finished it.
Okay, is everyone who wants to leave gone now? We all good? Cool.
So the zombie apocalypse has happened. Called “hungries” in this book, people have caught a virus that reduces them to all consuming mindless flesh monsters. Melanie and the children are also hungries, only they for some reason are self aware. The chemical baths are used to overpower the scent of human flesh from them, as smelling it sends them into a frenzy similar to their mindless kin. The children Dr. Caldwell takes away are being experimented on in hopes of finding a cure. Their brains are being cut open while they’re awake and confused because they don’t know what they are or why this is happening.
You can see how this book was semi-difficult to review without mentioning that.
The best way I can describe this book is “fluid.” You think it’s going one direction but there’s always this trickle of information coming in and later you realize your perspective on things have changed. The beginning of the book sets up a certain narrative with clear heroes and villains to overcome, but this world is much more complicated than that.
The zombie apocalypse genre is so tried by this point. Mankind must come together and overcome what differences we had in prezombies to preserve what is left of humanity, commentary on social constructs and over militarization and/or playing God due to scientists making the virus that triggered zombies, heroic mother/father figure trying to keep their child safe in this new world blah blah blaaaaaaaaaaah. The Girl with All the Gifts is much more reminiscent to I Am Legend than any other zombie work (the book, that is, not the Will Smith movie). The reader has to balance their internal rooting for humanity’s survival with the truly horrific things humanity is doing in order to survive. We feel an urge to protect Melanie and her fellow children but at the same time have to witness what they turn into when instinct takes over. But which is worse: indiscriminately killing due to instinctual hunger, or the deliberate experimentation and torture of self-aware creatures to help their species survive?
In case it hasn’t been made clear, I loved this book. The characters were fully thought out so that even the ones I despised morally I could understand the motivations driving them. It made me think about ethical questions so that by the time the end of the book and a final decision is made, I could easily understand the logic behind any choice the characters might make. I thought I was over zombies, but The Girl with All the Gifts showed me that there might still be elements to explore within this genre.