Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

Among 2017 movies, I’m most excited for this:

As you might have guessed, it’s a zombie movie. A very different kind of zombie movie.

When I discovered that this movie was developed in conjunction with a novel of the same name, I just had to read it. And the novel did not disappoint.

I can best describe it as “To Kill a Mockingbird” meets “The Walking Dead.” This tale of childhood, humanity, and survival in a world where all of those things are very much in doubt is one of the most unique and stirring stories I’ve read this year.

“The Girl With All the Gifts” is Melanie – a school-age child in a post-apocalyptic world where the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has made the jump to humans.

For context, this is what Ophiocordyceps does to insects:

But enough about science. Let’s talk about the book.

M. R. Carey’s language is beautiful. The story is told primarily through the eyes of the school-aged Melanie – a student who is beyond sheltered, having grown up in an airtight cell block with only her daily classes for exposure to the outside world.

Another major viewpoint character is Melanie’s teacher, Ms. Justineau – whose habit of viewing her “unusual” students as mere children is a source of serious concern for the soldiers and scientists charged with overseeing her study of their cognitive development.

As one might expect for a book narrated primarily by a schoolgirl and her teacher, the language in many places is heartbreakingly simple and personal. The security procedures of the post-apocalyptic world are explained to the reader as they might be to a child:

“The burn patrols have to be really careful, because there are lots of hungries still out there. If they catch your scent, they’ll follow you for 100 miles until they eat you.”

But out of this childlike language come some of the most visceral and hard-hitting moments I can remember. I’ll never forget Justineau’s viscerally brutal description of Ophiocordyceps bursting from an ant’s head, or Melanie’s tragically innocent assessment of a dead animal she saw in Dr. Caldwell’s laboratory.

It is precisely because of the childlike simplicity that the violence, when it comes, is unexpected; and the more adult realities of the situation are all the more disturbing for being not-quite-understood through the eyes of a child.

Just like the language, the character development is tight and heartbreaking: I can’t think of a single scene that doesn’t contribute something important to the understanding of an ultimately perfect team of characters for exploring humanity in the face of apocalypse.

One interesting thing readers of the book will want to note is that Melanie and Mrs. Justineau are race-swapped between the book and the movie.

On the first page of the book, in fact, Melanie notes that her name – which means “the black girl” – is inappropriate for her, because her skin is bone-white, her eyes blue, her hair blonde.

Instead, she asks to be called “Pandora” after her favorite mythological character – whose name derives from the Greek “Pan” for “All” and “Dora” for “Gifts.”

Hence the title of the book, and one of the most effective mythological references I’ve ever seen in literature.

However, Mrs. Justineau in the book is described as a black-skinned beauty of clearly African descent. In the movie, they appear to have simply switched the appearances of the two.

I actually like the movie interpretation better: blonde, blue-eyed Melanie from the book is almost a cliche, the most classical picture of European baby doll innocence you can imagine. The idea of Melanie as someone who, in another world, might have been a child of the inner city or subject to our stereotyping of dark skin, is much more interesting to me.

Based on the trailer, the movie looks to be a gloriously accurate interpretation of a fantastic book. Though some slight differences in the aesthetic will be noted, the movie might somehow turn out to be more true to the spirit of the book than the book itself.

I will definitely be seeing this one in theaters, and I encourage anyone who has a sweet tooth for the literature of the apocalypse to read the book!

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