Melanie is ten and she lives in a prison. Every day she has lessons with various teachers, Miss Justineau being her favourite. During the class and when she is taken to and from her cell, Melanie is strapped into a chair and every part of her is rendered immobile. Otherwise, Melanie might eat the people around her.
This is the set up of the book I have just finished reading, "The Girl with all the Gifts" by J.C. Carey.
It is a novel about a world on the brink of extinction because of an epidemic of a zombie-inducing disease. So far so familiar as a post-apocalyptic horror, you might think. There have been lots of books and movies with a similar premise, from "I am Legend" to "The Passage", "World War Z" and so forth. But this book is not really horror and it is a cut above a simple zombie-chase thrill. It contains some great characters, a convincing plot, very satisfying writing and it ponders some philosophical questions similar books often fail to address: how, exactly, do you define humanity? It may seem simple enough, but, if you capture for research some of the zombies who are in fact completely normal looking children and who can also learn to talk and behave like ordinary human beings, where do you draw the line between them being just test subjects and actual real, human offspring? If they show intelligence, compassion, love and self-restraint, can you still consider them to be nothing more than just zombie animals? How do you, ultimately, define being human? Species change and evolve to survive, and that idea is at the heart of this book.
The book first sets out the circumstances of Melanie's life, and that of the other children in the prison's care. We meet the main characters - Miss Justineau, the favourite teacher. Sargeant Sparks, the tough old soldier in charge of the prison. Caroline Caldwell, the ruthless doctor on a mission to save humanity. We learn what the children's daily life is like, and what threat they pose to the grown ups around them. The trigger for action is an outside attack on the prison, which ends up with the main characters escaping and starting a difficult journey towards "Beacon", the only city remaining as a home to non-infected people. In the course of the road trip, of course, various hazards whittle down our main characters to just Melanie and Miss Justineau, with a shocking end which justifies the book's title ("The Girl with all the Gifts" referring to the meaning of the Greek name Pandora).
The book has a gripping plot which made me count hours until Ana & Sacha were asleep so I could get back to it (I confess with a blush!), and I read it in record time. It is also written really well, edge-of-the-seat stuff but without cliches and stereotypes which, for me, ruin so many otherwise good thrillers. If I had to compare it to Justin Cronin's "The Passage", for example, I would say that this book relies on strong action and atmospheric prose while his contained a painful number of poorly written paragraphs.
I enjoyed it hugely, if you can say that about a book which makes you think about the end of the world a great deal. When I finished it, it took me a while to process and accept the ending, shocking as it is, and while I was sorry to say goodbye to the characters, it was also a relief to go back to my normal, non-zombie-containing life.
Read and enjoy.