ANDREW GARVEY reviews the James Herbert Award-nominated The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Let’s get the (hopefully mild) spoiler out of the way first. This is a post-apocalyptic novel featuring zombies. True, the dreaded ‘Z word’ is never mentioned but that’s essentially what this is. And just in case you feel completely burned out on what has become one of the horror genre’s most well-travelled and cliche-riddled roads, I felt it only fair to warn you in advance.
However, it’s also something else. And something quite special.
Liverpool-born writer and former teacher, M.R. (also known as Mike) Carey has written several novels but is far better known for his work as a writer of comic books. Prolific, successful and talented, the he’s written for DC and Marvel, working on major series’ like Hellblazer (adapted for film and TV under the name Constantine), the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
Twenty years or so after people started going around biting people and turning them into undead flesh-eating machines, a young girl named Melanie lives in some kind of military/medical facility where she longs for days when her class will be taught by Miss Justineau.
Reading her students Greek myths (including one that has a huge influence on the story) and taking particular interest in Melanie, Helen Justineau is the not quite whiter-than-white object of her adolescent love and hero worship.
Their relationship is absolutely vital to the story, and it’s development is written and plotted superbly. Their narrative journey, their intertwined fates and the way things change as Melanie discovers more of the world outside the facility, growing along the way from an intelligent and odd little girl to someone with a hugely pivotal role to play, is written with believability, compassion and real emotional depth.
Actually, the whole story is put together brilliantly, playing out like a horror/action/thriller film or, unsurprisingly given the author’s background. Teasing the reader with scraps and snippets of information, moving at a frantic pace when needed and slowing down to allow the ongoing, ever-changing situation, sink in, it all flows very well and almost forces the reader into taking in just a little more.
This starts with the book’s mysterious opening and continues right through to a great, and unexpected but thoroughly satisfying ending. Underpinned by some credible sounding, real world science to explain the ‘zombie’ plague, the story – crucially but somewhat unusually – makes sense and all the major characters behave in ways real people might when faced with the situations Carey throws at them.
While the story has real tension, it’s a little lacking in really frightful or scary moments. There’s some grotesquely described gore and some wince-inducing descriptions of the ‘zombies’ and what is happening to them.
At least one of the characters behaves in the kind of calculated, awful ways you might expect from a classic villain, and importantly, does this not for the simple, pantomime pleasure of being evil but because they think they’re right.
For me, this is clearly the best and most enjoyable of the James Herbert Award nominees from British authors and would have been a worthy winner and one of the best horror novels I’ve read in the last few years.