Melanie is a ten-year old girl that leads a strange life. She lives in a cell, only allowed outside it strapped on a wheelchair when she is to attend class. What the world outside looks like, she can only imagine. Maybe like in the mythology books her favourite teacher, Ms Justineau, reads for them.
It’s the only life Melanie knows, until something happens that turns her world upside down and liberates her from the confines of her wheelchair and her cell. But her newfound freedom comes at a price: she discovers the truth about herself and about the reason she was strapped to that wheelchair. And it ain’t pretty.
The post-apocalyptic world M.R. Carey describes is horrifying, not just because of the terrible things that lurk in it (although they do make a formidable adversary for our main characters), but because of the emptiness. Nature is reclaiming its ground, as well it should, only you’d expect it to do that after we’re gone. The contrast between Melanie’s well-structured, pragmatic, very much human world and the outside world is eerie, like the existence of life is the abnormality here, and not the thing that nearly wiped it out. Humans are clinging to this little island that allows them to exist, but they are surrounded by something way vaster, way more ancient, way more resilient: time.
”The girl with all the gifts” is, in many ways, an adventure, a journey our characters unwillingly embark on towards a – more or less common – goal. It is an entertaining journey for the reader, harrowing as it is. And you could read it as such and be content, because it is fast-paced and well-written. But there are other levels to the story. The book asks questions about what it means to be human. About the lengths humankind will go to in order to protect itself, above all other species, and how ethical those lengths are. It is by no means a cheerful novel, and not particularly hopeful. I found it hard to root for anyone, by the end. And that is perhaps my only gripe with the book. Characters that started out as relatable, with noble motives or at least human motives, end up completely unsympathetic. The problem is not so much that they, because of what happens to them, devolve into a worse version of themselves. They don’t start doing questionable or even wrong things; that I would understand under the circumstances of trying to survive in a hostile environment. The problem is the language Carey uses to describe their actions. The overuse of the verb ”demands” is an example of it. A character could not just ask; they demanded. They snarled. It was jarring, it didn’t really fit in.
Despite its flaws, this was a book that stayed with me. I can’t give it five stars, or even four, because it could have gone deeper with the questions it poses and because I found the gender clichés (tough army guy – with a scar, no less – , bitchy female scientist, kind, motherly teacher) kind of tiring, but it did make me think. It gets 3,5 out of five from me.