Tl;dr, it is very good. It made waves in 2014 for a reason.
Bonus tip: the film is also very good! Seeing it is the reason I put the book on my list, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.
A very quick disclaimer: the casting in the film took some different directions from the book (swapped the races of Melanie and Miss Justineau, basically) and I kept imagining the actresses while reading, though it messes with the description. It didn’t bother me – I’m rubbish at imagining things anyway – but I know it does bother some people if there’s a mismatch, so be aware. The casting is great though, and I think I preferred it to the book character descriptions?
Anyway, because I saw the film first, I don’t know how much of the book’s premise is spoilers, so be aware of that too. I don’t think it’s very spoilery, because basically as soon as you open it the slow reveal begins, but I thought I’d say anyway, in case you didn’t want to know more. If you don’t, then I’ll just say that the characters are strong and the writing is quite lovely and I inhaled this book.
SO, about them zombies, eh?
I was aware of the book but never really swayed quite into reading it until I saw the film, because zombies aren’t really my thing. But just like with Warm Bodies, the film convinced me to give it a go. It’s got just enough of a twist on it – a good twist. I did get some Warm Bodies vibes, though they’re very different stories. Both stories from the zombie’s perspective, and therefore both playing to varying extents with those ideas of humanity, of disaster, of the aftermath of disaster, of rebuilding or evolving. But Warm Bodies is a warm (it is!), funny love story with dark edges, and The Girl With All The Gifts is relentlessly grim, strange, hopeless and hopeful when the light hits it in different ways.
The other thing I made a connection with was Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules – For Now. That sounds weird, and it is for a genuine spoiler reason so this is your last chance to look away! but hear me out.
We’re reading from multiple points of view in The Girl With All The Gifts, from the unusual zombie to the commandeered schoolteacher-psychologist to the battle-hardened sergeant to the ambitious scientist to the apocalypse-born newbie, and though some characters are more likeable and relateable than others, they’re all roughly sympathetic in their own minds. Even the plague itself is interesting when we get out of the fortress and into the world, seeing its life cycle slowly play out (why yes, I have been watching David Attenborough documentaries). We want Melanie to survive, and we want the non-fungal humans to survive, and they can’t both. There were long stretches of the book where I was essentially hoping for the annihilation of the human race.
Or was I?
As Melanie says towards the end, it’s sad that all the other people have to die, but then the children like her will grow up, and they will have children of their own and humanity will continue. To paraphrase Morris’s book, the zombie children have come not to bury humanity, but to perfect it*.
There’s something quieting about this conclusion. In the wake of Old Humanity’s furious fighting and struggles, to find hope in letting fate have its way like this seems perverse and almost wrong. To think that we, the readers, are Old Humanity by definition, should the fungal plague ever come to pass. Would we give up so easily in the face of logic?
*I want to be very clear that I’m not drawing any parallels between Muslims and zombie children, just of the shape of history and the violence of societal change.