Most zombie stories follow the same formula: Brawny dudes use guns and makeshift weapons to protect nerds, women, and children from the ravenous dead and from other survivors. Yawn.
M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts is a terrifying zombie novel, but not in the expected way. The real enemy here isn’t the walking dead or even the crafty parasite that rules them. It’s evolution.
The Girl With All the Gifts opens in Britain about a decade after a zombie apocalypse left small numbers of humans hiding from the undead. Lots of walking-dead stories in recent years have offered a biological explanation for the plague—for instance, 28 Days Later or Brad Pitt’s big-screen adaptation of World War Z, whose pandemic story line felt tacked on—but the science often takes a back seat to the flesh-eating. Carey switches the formula, spending much more time on the infection and humanity’s attempts to conquer it than on bloodbaths. The result is a story that makes your brain feel at least a little nibbled on.
The book’s monsters are steered by a mutant version of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis—which you may know as the parasite behind “zombie ants.” As the novel explains, an infected ant is hijacked and forced to “climb to the highest place it can reach—to a leaf fifty feet or more above the forest floor.” From there, the fungus bursts forth from the poor ant’s head in the form of a sporangium that allows “thousands of spores” to “spread for miles,” with the help of the wind.
Let that penetrate your innocent, free-willed mind. This actual fungus cements the ant to a plant. Its sporangium grows inside, and then explodes out of, the insect’s head.
Carey imagines the species-climbing Ophiocordyceps spilling over from infecting ants to humans. (In a nice touch, scientists in The Girl With All the Gifts screen a horrifying David Attenborough–narrated segment from Planet Earth to explain the cause of the zombie apocalypse to the laity.) For most of the infected, this means a pretty normal, albeit more scientific-sounding, zombiedom: the staggering, the biting, the quick infection turning a normal human into a cannibalistic shell. In Britain, at least, most of the remaining humans huddle in a fortified zone, where they are safe from the saliva-transmitted infection. They also don’t have to see the particularly gross zombies that, after infection takes hold, have fungus burst from their bodies. Pretty standard horror stuff.
But then something odd(er) happens. Military excursions into zombie-infested turf begin finding normal-looking children who can speak, learn, and think, but are nevertheless infected with Ophiocordyceps. Rounded up into a lockdown boarding school, the infected kids live in individual cells, leaving only for weekly shower-and-grub sessions (and yes, those are literal grubs), and for class, where they are strapped and locked into chairs. It is there that we meet Melanie, the girl with all the gifts, who excels in the classroom and who has a macabre sense of humor: When two handlers come to load her into a chair—one points a gun at her while the other secures her—she jokes, “Don’t worry, I won’t bite.” They don’t laugh, because a single whiff of human is all it takes to whip the gentle-seeming girl into a feeding frenzy that she cannot control.
But bright, eager Melanie, who doesn’t quite understand the nature of her disease, is incapable of turning bitter; the highlight of her life is Helen Justineau, the kindest of the rotating cast of teachers whose job it is to see how much they can teach these sort-of humans. It’s like Roald Dahl’s Matilda but with zombies: A teacher bonds with a precocious, cheerful child with amazing abilities who hasn’t been soured by the cruelty of her circumstances.