REVIEW: Liesl Jobson
Had I not gone as a journalist to report on the recent Open Book Festival event at which Mike Carey spoke — with open-hearted animation and self-deprecating humour to the topic “Sci-fi/Fantasy Rocks” — I would not have given The Girl with all the Gifts a second glance. Post-apocalyptic fantasies feature nowhere on my reading list. Ever. But when this book surfaced in the reviewers’ pool, I grabbed it.
Carey is a highly skilled storyteller. His powerful written style amply lives up to his engaging personal presence in this spectacular and peculiar multi-genre tale. Part psychological thriller, part sci-fi narrative, part futuristic horror show, this epic quest is the summation of Carey’s various writerly competencies.
The five major characters in this book make an arduous journey under enormous duress in search of salvation from an incomprehensible virus. After being attacked the host is transmogrified into an unthinking and all-consuming monster. This trope taps into our elemental terror of who we become when our human existence as we know it is threatened. “We all have the potential to be monstrous,” said Carey at the Open Book Festival. Here he explores what drives us to retain our humanity in the face of the unfathomable and unfixable.
His deft handling of these archetypal themes could be a metaphor for a range of contemporary ills: vulture capitalism fed by humankind’s rapacious and unthinking consumerism; the democratisation of stupidity as fostered by the internet; the seductive trance of television; or, our sloppy unpreparedness to handle ebola in a manner that is calm, compassionate and wise.
The condensed visual power of M.R. Carey’s history as a comic book writer (he wrote for the X-Men) meets his dialogue driven scriptwriting experience in an unputdownable tale of grace and justice, albeit of a bizarre nature. He borrows from science, exploring the grim reality of the parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Once infected, the ant’s behaviour is manipulated by neurotransmitters that mimic the ant’s own chemistry. This results in the host’s destruction as spore-producing stalks explode from within ant’s body to proliferate and commence the new life-cycle. One might well ask whether this doesn’t echo the way human neurology is being shaped by social media and relentless online connectedness. The heartless scientist, Dr Caldwell, eloquently describes the process, which could be any variety of addiction: “Tiny chemical wrecking balls pounding away at the edifice of self until it cracks and crumbles, falls apart.”
It is impossible to describe this story without giving away critical aspects that risk spoiling the reading experience. Suffice it to say that young Melanie is a brilliant “child” (read the air quotes sub-text as you must) who is kept under armed guard and fed a diet of grubs. She imbibes stories and legends from her beloved teacher, Miss Justineau, and retells them to herself in her isolated cell. A psychologist haunted by her own dark secrets and part of the research team, Miss Justineau is determined to love her young subjects, which puts her in direct conflict with Sergeant Parks. He is the boorish military man in charge of the operation who taunts the children in an early scene. His side-kick, Private Gallagher, is a traumatised survivor, tormented by a raging alcoholic father. In an unutterably tender moment he, very much later, reads Melanie a story, offering her that which he never received himself.
The power of story is an unnamed but significant character in this book. The myths and legends Miss Justineau feeds Melanie keep her alive. She comforts herself with them when alone in her cell, where she is held under lock and key as part of a cruel scientific endeavour. The egotistic Dr Caldwell believes her research will save humanity. The stories spur Melanie’s development enabling the girl to make connections that ultimately offer the true solution for the next generation.
Structurally, there is a perfect reversal of the power dynamics. As the story arc reaches its various apices full-bodied full-blooded characters take their rightful place, unfolding their own dramatic conflicts and that of the overarching story. There is nothing not to like in this book that will live on in your memory long after you’ve closed its simple yet embracing cover.
Without having heard Carey in person, my literary snobbishness would have prevented me from reading this exquisite story. That would have been my loss.