Within the first few pages of this book, I wanted to give up. A girl in a cage, unexplained punishment, institutionalised suffering. A little too much like The Enchanted. But the friend who recommended The Girl With All The Gifts urged me on saying that the book was not what I expected. So I returned to it and it was most definitely not the excessive suffering narrative I was dreading. This book is compulsive and haunting, a fast-paced thriller that also surprises with its warmth.
Melanie knows only the institution we are thrown into. A life of regulation, every morning she is strapped into her wheelchair at gunpoint by the sergeant and his men, taken to class with the other students. A different teacher each day, she lives for Miss Justineau days. A small child genius, Melanie is a smart girl who particularly is fascinated by the Greek myths Miss Justineau shares with them.
“In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia and Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a question that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation.”
Very quickly, we find out that Melanie’s life is not a normal one, her world is not ours. The children are given chemical showers once a week, tearing into their bowls of grubs every Sunday. They are fed only once a week, as they metabolise proteins differently, apparently. There are no parents. They do not play or interact; are never allowed to be touched. Their institution is presided over by Dr Caldwell, a scientist who refers to the children as ‘subjects’.
This book feels like a modern day sci-fi Pandora’s box parable. Melanie and the other children are so much more than the adults managing them, teaching them, studying them. The story unfolds into a horror-fuelled world; when the defining moment comes that ruptures the world of routine and restriction, I sat there wondering what the hell was going to happen next: I was only a quarter of the way through the book and the one thing I thought everything was building toward had just occurred, so what happens next?
What happens next is a lot: with chapters from alternating first-person perspectives the story is compulsively rolled on, into a foreign, terrifying world. It is a genuine adventure in dangerous lands, and reads kind of like a Hollywood movie. The story apparently stemmed out of a short storey M R Carey wrote especially for an anthology, and through real vigour of imagination spawned into this wide, detailed world. It is a scary place where this book is set, but through genuine character development and plot that absolutely leaves you guessing, you’re pulled in to this gripping and poignant place.
This book was a perfect summer read for me: a story that won’t let you go, a rollercoaster of a plot, characters who go so much deeper than their original goodie and baddie archetypes. Carey’s writing is intelligent and well structured, telling a narrative of great fear and foreigness in an accessible, memorable way.