Warning – not for the mycophobic…
Seems not so long ago I was bemoaning the lack of decent zombie fiction and now the genre has exploded like a decaying bladder full of decompolicious gasses. Unfortunately in this post-World War Z literary graveyard there is a new problem. We’re suddenly knee-deep in fetid tales of undead carnage but Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90% of everything is crud. In a blooming genre that’s a lot of entrails to sort through before you get to the brains. Thankfully for us all, people like M.R. Carey exist. People who, like Max Brooks, dare to take a baseball bat to the chewed-off face of the genre and start re-arranging things. When they do it right, the results can be glorious.
Melanie is a young schoolgirl who spends her days struggling to maintain her spot at the top of the class and idolising her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. She daydreams about ancient myths and legends and her precocious mind is filled information on a truly esoteric range of subjects. She’s not normal though. At the end of the day she’s strapped into her chair and wheeled back into her cell by armed men, shackled for the safety of all those around her. Melanie is, you see, what we could best describe as a highly-functioning zombie.
Unknown to Melanie and her classmates, the world outside their cell walls is devastated, reeling from an epidemic which has turned much of mankind into mindless killers. The rest is split into those fighting to regain a hold on civilisation and those who have gone feral. In the former camp are scientists like the chilling Dr. Caldwell who have been forced to ditch any sentimental attachment to individual humans (or humanlike beings) in order to save the masses from further suffering. In the latter are those disaffected who have shirked off any notion of society and wish merely to destroy. Unfortunately for Melanie and Miss Justineau the local balance of power has invisibly shifted and they are about to be thrust into the harsh reality of the new world.
There are many reasons why The Girl With All The Gifts stands out above its peers but I’m going to focus on two to save this review going on for pages. First up is the origins story. Get any slavering pack of die-hard zombie fans together and you can expect a lengthy, detailed discussion of their favourite cause or transmission vector., be it radiation, illness or alien possession. MR Carey manages to pull off something truly original here, something not only rooted in actual science but also so stomach-churning that it gave me genuine shivers to read about, no mean feat. If you’re not familiar with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis then you’re lucky. I first encountered it in Carl Zimmer’s utterly wonderful Parasite Rex and now it’s back to haunt me. Long story short, it’s a fungus whose spores infects the body of an ant, seize control of its nervous system and force it to climb to the highest point of a tree where it will remain frozen until the parasite bursts from its head and releases more spores onto the forest floor, allowing Cordy (yes, I give cutesy pet names to icky fungi) to carry on its life cycle. Now imagine that in a human. And imagine it trying to spread by biting other humans instead of climbing trees. Sweet dreams. I can’t stress enough how much this concept simultaneously thrills and repulses me but I can only hope it does the same to you.
Helping The Girl With All The Gifts really strike home is the very human touch which Carey brings to his characters, even the technically non-human Melanie and the token-bad-guy doctor. It makes you truly invest in the key players which makes it hurt all the more when the darker side of the story inevitably rears its head time and again. The play-off between Melanie’s innocence and the unremitting harshness of the world around her forms a major thread of the book and builds the atmosphere for many a gut-punch to come. Oh, and talking of gut-punches – best ending ever. In my opinion anyway. My hat’s off to you Mr Carey, I didn’t see it coming at all and it, well, I can’t say any more for fear of spoilage.
Anyway, that’s all I’m saying for now. I could ramble on for pages but you shouldn’t be reading this, you should be running out and buying the book itself. Go discover some fungal zombie mayhem. Get squeamish. Watch a world fall apart in the most tragic way. Just go easy on the mushroom soup next time…