The Girl With All the Gifts
by M. R. Carey
This is one of those books for which five stars simply isn't enough.
Once upon a time, a girl with skin as white as snow and hair as bright as gold slept in a stone cell and dreamed of a world outside.
Each day, Melanie wakes up in her cell, sprayed down with disinfectant, strapped into a wheelchair, wheeled by a nervous soldier into class, where she learns algebra and the kings and queens of England and the populations of cities and the old myths, of Prometheus and Icarus, of Pandora, the girl with all the gifts. Melanie knows that the Breakdown has altered the world; she knows that beyond the barricades, the cities have fallen and the hungries wait mindlessly for human prey, but she still imagines someday leaving the confines of her cell and her corridor; of, as she thinks,
“Like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what's inside is good or bad. Because it's both. Everything is always both.
But you have to open it to find out."
The Girl with all the Gifts is a truly outstanding story, a captivating premise, an imaginative yet believable future, poignant, abruptly shifting from heartwarming to heartrending. The story is narrated in third person from several characters' points of view, and although it is told in third person, each voice is distinct, with its own cadence and viewpoint. Some have a charming, self-deprecating, darkly humorous edge; for example:
"This man came to Wainwright House with something trivial like bursitis and -- as many people do -- experienced complications while he was being treated. In this case, the complications were that the hungries feasted on his flesh and made him one of them."
The most glorious and gut-wrenching moments are from the perspective of Melanie. The writing style is in the present tense, simple but articulate, charged with all of the wonder and innocence and faith that only a child’s voice can contain. The contrast between the world that Melanie glories in and the dystopia that the reader absorbs through her eyes makes the world even more vivid and heartbreaking and bittersweet. The reader sees a hopeless, post-apocalyptic world of blood and fear, of cruelty and slim hope for a future. Melanie knows about what the world was and what it is now, yet she still sees wonder and beauty and possibility everywhere; in a flower, in the sky, in the proof of infinite primes. The book is adorned with lovely little moments of childish insight, articulated with a naive simplicity and clarity:
"When your dreams come true, your true has moved. You've already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago."
Melanie’s very innocence adds another layer of uncertainty; is she the frail hope to be rescued from the depths of the box of all evils, or a mixed blessing, holding in her hands both tremendous danger yet burgeoning hope for a darkening world? Or is she Pandora herself, destined to open the box and release humanity’s fate upon the world? There are so many complex underpinnings, so much symbolism, that the book is still haunting me.
I simply love the imagery; the girl, with her eyes full of wonderment, gazing into a world of flowers and sunlight, skipping cheerfully and wearing a muzzle and handcuffs; Miss Justineau and spatters of red clothing; a silent forest of hungries, branches reaching towards the dawn; a silent city of frozen people, two children wandering in a world they have never seen and could never have quite imagined.
By the way, if you're curious about what that silent forest would look like, I believe that this is the Attenborough clip that Caldwell plays for everyone. That comment at the end is perhaps the most chilling part.
FRIGGING MASSIVE SPOILERS: DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK.
I love the symbolism of colour, of "The Woman Who Rode Double," of a return to an older world of Picts and Greeks, sky-clad warriors and funeral pyres. I still love the irony of the ending, of Miss Justineau now trapped in a cage and wheeled out on display for the children, of Melanie's belief throughout that what she enjoyed Justineau would enjoy too. In fact, it's interesting that all three of the human protagonists were vanquished by the children; Gallagher and Parks were beaten and eaten and Justineau was captured.
The ending, especially, can't seem to shake itself out of my thoughts. So many people in the story are so certain of the truth, so many people who know how the world should be. I still can't quite believe she did that; not only do I see some logistical difficulties-- can the new children even grow and have children, for example?-- but her hypocrisy is utterly breathtaking. Melanie has destroyed the whole world. Even iv the Beacon was already gone--and the text certainly suggests it is--what about the rest of the world? Why is her choice somehow better than killing children? Isn't she, after all, killing some number of children? She isn't saving a new species; the fate she predicts wouldn't even happen unless all the new children were wiped out, and there's no reason to think that they would be. In some ways, Melanie is the mirror of Caldwell; like Caldwell, she decides that a set of lives are not worthwhile, not worth living, and dismisses them to torment and death. Maybe there is hope in the bottom of the box, but Melanie truly has released evil into the world.
And yet what can one expect? Another of the quotes I love comes from Parks:
"As far as the kid is concerned, the world never ended. They taught her all these old, old things, filled her head with all this unserviceable shit, and they thought it didn't matter because she was never going to leave her cell except to be dismantled and smeared on microscope slides.
His stomach lurches. He has a sense, or the first time in his soldiering career, of what a war crime might look like from the inside. And it's not him who's the criminal, or even Caldwell. It's Justineau. And Mailer. And that drunken bastard Whitaker, and all the rest of them. Caldwell, she's just a butcher. She's Sweeney Todd, with a barber's chair and a straight razor. She didn't spend years twisting kids' brains into pretzels."
Melanie has grown up learning about a dead world, comparing the fairy-stories she hears with the realities she feels: the blistering hatred and brutality from Parks, the fear from all the other soldiers and teachers, the scientific brutality of Caldwell, the hypocritical loving gentleness of Justineau who keeps the children amused and happy until their deaths are most convenient. Melanie's only basis of true kindness is from the stories of a world that she knows is gone. How can she look at humanity and see anything other than a wasteland? How can she see anything worth saving?
And that, I think, is why my heart kept breaking.
The nature of the book makes it impossible to summarize without spoilers, so I’ll simply add that whatever you imagine the book to be, I think that it will defy and surpass your expectations.
**NOTE: Quotations are taken from an uncorrected digital galley and are therefore provisional. Quotes will be corrected when the book is released.**
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Hachette Book Group (Orbit), in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! ~~
I firmly believe that the right music accentuates the beauty and tragedy of a book. In this case, the perfect music was James Newton Howard's soundtrack to "Blood Diamond."
It comes closer to expressing my feelings about the book than anything I could actually say. Please give it a listen if you read the book.