My reference to Pandora’s box is intentional. Alluded to in the title itself, Pandora and her “gifts” are a powerful metaphor throughout the book. The myth, of course, is that Pandora opens a box and releases all of the evils of humanity, leaving Hope trapped inside as she struggles to close it again. The existence of Pandora and her box is a punishment for humanity from Zeus for humans having been given the gift of fire. We won’t get into the grossly patriarchal nature of a myth about a woman being created by a god to bring evil to humanity in this review. For our purposes, the important themes from this lovely, little myth are all about the complex interconnections between good and evil, the fine line between humanity and inhumanity, and the unforgiving nature of evolution and extinction.
On that first topic of the juxtaposition of good and evil, we need look no further than the main character, Melanie. When we meet her, she is a sweet, innocent grade-schooler . . . strapped Hannibal Lector-style to a wheelchair, all guns trained on her, spending her days in a solitary confinement cell. Clearly, there’s something wrong with this picture, and oh, how delightfully wrong it is. Think back to that little, undead girl who Rick Grimes encounters in the first episode of The Walking Dead. Now, give her a genius-level IQ and a lack of awareness that she’s undead. She loves you very much . . . and promises she won’t bite. In Melanie, Carey is asking his audience to consider that innocence or evil may, in fact, be much, much more than the sum of its appearance. This is a character that the reader can love and fear in vast, equal sums.
The focus of Melanie’s childlike adoration is Ms. Justineau, the favorite of her teachers. Ms. Justineau reads to the children (Yes, there’s more than one of these kids.) from a book of Greek myths and generally treats them like they are more than a freak show subject ready to be served up in a Petri dish. Ms. Justineau can’t stop seeing the humans that these children might be and subsequently can’t stomach the real purpose for which the children are being kept in the first place.
Ms. Justineau’s polar opposite is . . . science. Cold, amoral science, disconnected from any form of human relationship. Running this experimental show is Dr. Caroline Caldwell. When she looks at Melanie, all she sees is her most promising test subject, a “walking” vivisection of brain tissue and potentially the key to all of the professional validation she so psychotically craves. Caldwell is a non-android Ash from Alien . . . with a degree less empathy for her subjects and co-workers.
Carey makes this human representation of science his primary villain, but in the end (and the fact that she is a freaking sociopath aside) it’s pretty hard to argue with what Caldwell is attempting to accomplish. There’s not much morality or ideology you can apply to laws of nature or physics and, more specifically, the process of evolution. Things evolve as they evolve . . . without much attention paid to collateral damage, without any need for our acceptance or approval. As the “top of the food chain,” we humans tend to think we have a considerable amount of control over our own destiny, but The Girl with All the Gifts turns the tables on us in a definitive way. When the evolutionary “advancement” is pointed at us . . . and is entirely out of our control, we have the makings of a true horror story.
Carey manages to bring a fresh approach to the zombie genre while keeping focus on all the usual themes . . . and then some. He pulls away from many of the standard genre tropes, focusing less on the running and the screaming and more on the understanding and coexisting. (Although, please don’t get me wrong . . . there’s plenty of running and screaming.) Carey’s world building is bleak and unforgiving, while, at the same time, his prose beautifully descriptive. The dreary reality of a long-destroyed world is juxtaposed with the wonder of a child’s first-time discovery of nature.
The Girl with All the Gifts is as well-balanced and thoughtful a piece of speculative fiction as I’ve read in a long time. So much about this story hit all the right notes with me, but I think my favorite features are a willingness to take its themes to a new and imaginative conclusion . . . and the consistently gorgeous prose. There is death and horror and the scourge of the Earth by fire, but there is also life and birth and maybe just a glimmer of Hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
Finty Williams (who, in unrelated news, is Judi Dench’s daughter. What?!) gives a spot-on, pitch-perfect reading of this book. She is officially going on my “Need to Listen to Everything They’ve Done” list. Lovely speaking cadence, nicely controlled portrayals of varying genders, age groups, and accents. And, there’s just something to be said about listening to a pleasant, little horror tale read to you in a soothing British accent.
P.S. If you enjoy The Girl with All the Gifts, I highly recommend Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels (#3 on my 2014 Top Ten Reading List) . . . Why are you still here? Get to reading already.