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Review: The Girl with all the Gifts


GirlThe Girl with all the Gifts 

M.R. Carey

Orbit Books

ISBN: 9780356502731

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.

REVIEW: Ride The Tortoise


ride the tortoiseRide The Tortoise

Liesl Jobson


By Karin Schimke

Jobson drops her reader into the middle of a narrative and continues talking as though you’ve been privy to the story since its beginning.

It’s rather like being invited to step on to a treadmill with someone who has already achieved a certain pace and who is delighted to have you along but makes no concessions for your lateness in arriving. After a few pages, and almost without warning, the treadmill halts and you get off again.

The experience is bracing but oddly satisfying. In the space of 175 pages, the reader of Ride The Tortoise gets to ride the lives of over 15 South African characters.

liesl jobson

Liesl Jobson

Jobson has an uncanny ability to slip fluidly under the skin of such a variety of characters, it is sometimes hard to believe they all sprung from the pen of one author. Her modus operandi is to put readers inside their un-edited minds where they privy to their oddest and most embarrassing thoughts, their deepest longings, their guilt and their worries.

It is impossible not to overlay some of the self on these characters, whom Jobson presents without artifice or an attempt to pretty-up. The characters’ apparent lack of an inner editor is startling, funny and produces both discomfort and something akin to admiration.

The narrators are not always likable, but each evokes such empathy, that you feel protective towards him or her; that you rage for him or her against the manipulations and cruelties of their loved ones, but you also love alongside them their lovers’, parents’ and childrens’ quirks and failings.

Jobson has a sharp eye and a fine ear (each no doubt the result of her two other passions, photography and music), but what sets her apart from others is her great attraction to the verges of where mental illness dwells amongst us. Her characters are frightened, floundering, flawed and flayed. Sometimes the stories capture moments of madness in them, of un-grace, of slippage. Jobson has a familiarity with the stranger recesses of the human psyche, which she presents in a way that neither glamorises nor disdains oddness and eccentricity. It is her characters’ ordinariness that successfully conveys that peculiarness is pedestrian, even mainstream.

I interview Jobson at the launch of her book in Kalk Bay on Tuesday and asked whether she herself could find a common element in the mixed milieu and fractured, dissonant lives of her characters. She answered that they all shared some trauma.

And here is precisely where her work rises out of the personal and into the public domain: her characters are utterly, recognisably South African, finding ways to live in a country which is – to nick one of Jobson’s own recurring themes – an inconsistent, cruel, manipulative mother.

Jobson is a master storyteller. Readers with a curiosity or reluctance towards the short story form would do well to start with Ride The Tortoise to familiarise themselves with how – when it’s done well – a short story can be as satisfying and all encompassing as a novel.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in April 2013