Meet Melanie. Ten years old, very fair of skin. This means she’s beautiful, according to all the old stories, so a prince will come and rescue her someday. Until then, she’s strapped to a chair at gunpoint every morning, eats grubs once a week, and nurses a crush for her favourite teacher, Miss Justineau. It doesn’t take long for any reader to figure out what Melanie and the other children are, despite no clue being given in the book’s blurb. What’s important is that Melanie acts, thinks and feels human—until she gets her first whiff of human flesh.
Upon finishing this book, I lay on my bed in a minor state of shock. I finally recovered enough to rise, only to walk in meandering circles around my house, hopelessly searching for someone with which to debrief.
Truly, I can say this happens very rarely. I’ve read plenty of books others described as “gripping”, “chilling” and “haunting”, but for me, it takes a bit to make a thriller stick. As most thriller buffs can tell you, it’s not just the pure gore that hits home, but the reflection of ourselves in the monster, and theirs in us.
Chapter one spoiler: this book is about zombies.
And yet, at its core, this book is not about zombies.
Melanie is (metaphorically) Pandora of ancient Greek myth, the girl with all the gifts—gifts of good and evil. And so amongst all the usual fight-and-flight action, the classic flee-from-A-to-B-through-zombie-territory, remains a strong human element, as Melanie fights the monster within herself, and her companions struggle to accept her.
Young Melanie and Miss Justineau are by far the strongest characters in the story, and varying points of view let both characters develop beyond their ideas of each other. Miss Justineau is not the flawless being Melanie believes her to be, and Melanie is far stronger (body and mind) than Miss Justineau sees. After witnessing this relationship, we don’t really care about the other characters. Just as a “Miss Justineau day” in the military compound’s classroom was cause for joy to Melanie, so too would I perk up at a chapter from either character. In comparison, the remaining characters are a little dull: predictable personalities from textbook zombie lore. On the other hand, without those characters we would have been left with a mother/daughter-they-never-had love story. And you can’t push sentimentalism on a thriller crowd.
The Girl With All the Gifts takes the classic zombie story, blasts its brains out, and puts the remaining juices under a microscope. It mashes zombies, one of our greatest speculative fears, and children, one of our most inherent emotive triggers. The result: a heartbreaking, brain-twisting, insomnia-inducing ride to the end of the world.