First off, The Girl With All the Gifts is not a YA book. The cover and nondescript cover certainly make it look that way, as does the very vague plot description. Soft cover over sized paperback? CHECK. Vague title with seemingly uplifting cover image? CHECK. Dystopian setting starting with the point of view of female protagonist? CHECK. It’s a veritable dystopian teen YA bingo! But you would be wrong although I have to think the publisher did this on purpose.
Despite all this, The Girl With All the Gifts is decidedly not YA. The smattering of f-bombs within the first few pages should tip you off and if that doesn’t do it the horrific graphic violence and stomach churning premise will seal the deal. The book is best discovered by the reader but I honestly never would have read it based on the generic description and cover. What sold me was when I saw the trailer for the movie (at bottom of page) because at that point I got why my wife kept recommending I read it but refused to tell me why. Only that it wasn’t what I expected. And she was right.
Our introduction to the world of The Girl With All the Gifts is through the eyes of Melanie. Along with a couple dozen classmates she lives in a military base where they attend school. The book takes a few chapters to start to hone in on the wrongness of the situation. All the children are restrained at all times and under military guard, subjected to chemical baths, weekly meals of live grubs, and sometimes a few of them disappear in to a lab run by Dr. Caldwell, never to be seen again. The only light Melanie has in her life is in her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. One day, in a moment of unguarded tenderness, Miss Justineau reaches out to touch Melanie’s head. The military in the room immediately react and the perspective changes for the first time to someone other than Melanie, and we begin to understand why the military is so terrified of her.
The how and why are more interesting to discover on your own, but what the reader quickly learns is that there was a societal collapse several years earlier due to the emergence of a previously unknown organism. The “children” in the class are infected but their bodies are somehow coexisting with the invader and maintaining their human emotions and controlling their actions in a way the vast majority of the infected – called “hungries” due to their insatiable appetite for flesh – cannot. Of them, Melanie is extraordinary. Her mental acuity is genius level and she seems to be the key to saving the human race if she can control those violent urges and bloodthirsty that fights for control of her body.
At the end of the world the characters are holding on to what can get them through. For Caldwell it’s the investigation in to what makes the hungries tick. For Justineau, it’s to protect Melanie. This stubbornness in not seeing the bigger picture is what makes them tragic and difficult to understand while also propelling the novel to places post-apocalypse stories usually don’t go.
Just when you think the story is going in one way it surprises you. The ultimate revelation for why Melanie is the way she is hammers the theme of the novel home elevating a rote and tired premise into something a lot more thought provoking and, frankly, terrifying.
Fans of apocalyptic science fiction and zombie horror will find a lot to like in The Girl With All the Gifts and will be surprised how much the story and characters stick with you long after you read the last haunting page.
The movie comes out in Europe this year and the US some time in 2017. It looks excellent and stars Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, and Gemma Arterton. Be aware there are spoilers for the novel in the trailer so if you want to read it blind I recommend holding off on watching.