I’m going to try – really hard – not to give away the ‘twist’ about this book. Even though I’d guessed it long before I picked it up, and even though it did not spoil my enjoyment of the book in any way whatsoever, I am acutely sensitive that other readers might not feel the same way. So, let’s hope for the best.
(Although, if you don’t know what the twist at the heart of this book is, and you don’t want to have it spoiled for you, do not go to Goodreads. The cat’s not only out of the bag over there, but that ol’ bag’s been ripped to shreds, yo. Be warned).
The Girl with All the Gifts was a fast-paced, brain-tingling, heart-wrenching read. I thought it was excellent, from its plot to its characterisation to its deft use of language; however, it was (at times) quite gruesome. Bodily injury is described, surgical procedures are an intrinsic part of the plot, as are medical/biological descriptions, and there is a lot – a lot – of death. This doesn’t bother me (not in books, at least, and particularly not when it’s clearly vital to the story being told), but there are readers for whom it might be a problem. I’m not saying there’s blood spatter on every page (far from it), but the bits that are bloody are quite intense.
In any case, it tells the story of Melanie, who is (we suppose) about eleven. She is a pupil in a school for children who are – like herself – special in some undefined way. Every morning she is awoken by armed guards who strap her into a chair and wheel her into her classroom where she receives lessons from a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Melanie loves Miss Justineau’s classes; the children learn about history and art and literature and the world when their kind and wise teacher is on duty, and over time Melanie begins to love not just the lessons, but Miss Justineau herself, too. The relationship between pupil and teacher is the primary emotional core of the novel, and it is expertly drawn and very moving. However, as we fall more deeply for Melanie (who would much rather be known as Pandora, the titular ‘girl with all the gifts’), the sheer weirdness of her world begins to hit us harder. It’s difficult to understand why she and her classmates are treated as a mix between geniuses and violent criminals; they don’t seem to be insane, or murderous, or in any way different from a normal bunch of kids going to school. Yet there are armed guards on every corner, and the children are dealt with and spoken to as if they were inmates in a high-security prison. Any hint of affection shown to them is severely punished. Any attempt to treat them like human beings is challenged.
As the story progresses, we begin to learn the truth about what’s going on in this world, and why the soldiers don’t laugh when Melanie jokes, one morning as they strap her into her chair, that she doesn’t bite. We figure out why nobody washes, but why they take chemical showers instead. We put together why the children only eat once a week. We start to work it all out while remembering that we are reading about children, and children we come to love very quickly. Melanie and her classmates get right into your heart, and when two of them are chosen and taken away to a laboratory by Dr Caldwell (incidentally, one of the most compelling and complex characters I’ve read), we feel torn and terrible and distraught even while, on some deep level, we understand why it is being done. It’s not that I agreed with Caldwell’s actions, but I understood her motives and objectives, and that scared me.
Which is, of course, brilliant.
And then the compound on which they all live and work is attacked by vigilantes intent on destroying everything they see, and Melanie – along with Dr Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and a couple of soldiers – escape into the unknown. Into a blasted world which has changed beyond anything we could recognise, a future vision of England many years after a massive, world-changing disaster has happened. Into a world where Melanie is feared by all the adults (even, a little, by Miss Justineau, who also loves her deeply), but where they also understand that she may be their only means of survival.
This book is many things – it’s a road novel, a survival story, a horror story, a beautiful story of love in its many forms, and a bildungsroman, if one can use the term of an eleven-year-old girl. Melanie certainly finds out who she is during the course of the story, and she struggles with that reality. She is the beautiful heart of the tale, and her innocent love for Miss Justineau, her desire to learn, her innate goodness and curiosity, are such a spectacular counterpoint to the reality in which she lives that it drives the whole book. The characters are rich and complex (though Miss Justineau reveals a dark secret about herself near the end of the book which I felt was a bit unnecessary; she was nuanced enough, in my opinion), and every one of them is believable and rounded and accomplished. The dialogue and setting are perfect – just close enough to home to be familiar, and just different enough to be horrifying – and the book plays with expectation and convention to excellent effect. It takes a trope with which we’re all familiar and makes something so new, and so fascinating, out of it that it practically reinvents the mythology. (Speaking of mythology, it also utilises Greco-Roman myths beautifully, tying in with the title in a very pleasing way).
And then there’s the ending, which is perfect. It’s not often you come across an ending which is so cleanly done that it squeaks, but this one does. It’s not what I expected, and it’s not what I hoped for, but it’s absolutely the right ending for this story.
So. This isn’t a book for kids, and it’s not a book for people who find it hard to sleep if they’ve read something scary, and it’s not a book for people who are able to put down a story mid-way through because they’ve to go do something silly like make dinner, or whatever. Block out the time you need to read this, and immerse yourself in it. It’s worth it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this or any year, and if you like your books thoughtful, challenging, moving and just a little bit weird, then this is the one for you.