Another fairly new book, publicized and talked about a lot, based on a short story Iphigenia in Aulis, which won an Edgar Award. A movie is being made as I write, under a title She Who Brings Gifts, with Glen Close playing one of the main roles. The book strays from my regular literary diet, being a dystopia about zombies, and it didn’t change my tastes, nevertheless I quite enjoyed it.
A dystopia about zombies… Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Thankfully, Carey knows how to play this game, mixing old and new, and, most importantly, concentrating on the characters. It’s a character novel, in essence; a road story, a Bildungsroman of sorts.
It starts innocuously enough. We meet a girl, Melanie who would preferred to be called Pandora, in a school for special children. It is a very special school indeed, with a bunch of kids held in individual cells, controlled by soldiers, supervised by scientists. They go to class five days a week, eat grubs once a week and bathe once a week, in a chemical solution, and never outside their cells can they leave their steel wheelchairs, to which they are firmly strapped. The children know nothing about the world outside their prison/school (a nice play on the institutions’ inherent similarity, Goffman would sure like it ;)), all their understanding comes from what their teachers tell them. And they are a sorry lot, both the children and the adults, children unknowing, adults knowing too much.
Melanie is an exceptionally bright ten–year-old girl, empathetic, intelligent, imaginative. She is inquisitive, curious, and like a stray puppy, eager to please and hungry for emotions, relations, human touch. But here’s the problem: as soon as the children smell or touch humans, their behavior changes. Their bodies stop listening to their minds and behave as if they had a mind of their own. They lunge, their jaws outstretched and crunching, trying to bite and rip and swallow. The disease they somehow contracted (I won’t say how, even though it’s one of the surprises that should surprise you but really don’t) robs them of their free will, changes them into mindless, bloodthirsty puppets.
Why even teach them, instead of killing them outright? Well, they do behave differently from the other zombies: all the others have no conscious thought left in the fungus-infected grey and white matter of their brains. As befits a proper zombie, they eat the normal humans; those that are still more or less in one piece after they’ve been munched on, become new zombies. And thus the circle of un-life closes. Lion King would weep.
The base and the school were created for scientific purposes. For finding a cure to a zombie infection that swept through the world like a fire through dry kindling, toppling civilizations and governments and rendering most of the technology useless or beyond reach. There were some previous efforts at scientific expeditions, but nobody heard from the scientists since. They’re probably somewhere out there still, trying to rack their brains, literally. Oh, the world of zombie-related puns! 😉
Anyway, in the world once more divided and de-globalized to a very local scale, there’s only one scientist left, the one that despite her best efforts didn’t get in on the project and finished third below the line. Caroline Caldwell has an obsession with zombie pathogen, the fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis; she created the school to experiment on those different, not-so-socially-impaired zombies, children or not. After all their brains, overgrown with fungus, show some fascinating patterns…
One of the teachers, Helen Justineau, finds that she doesn’t agree with Caldwell methods. Some of her moral opposition is grounded in her murky past, some of it comes from a fact that she has become emotionally attached to Melanie. There’s also an inevitable tough sergeant with a scar and bad attitude, Ed Parks, and a rookie with golden heart and troubled childhood. And so of course, the novel cannot run its course in the school alone. The junkers, humans who decided to try their luck in the open, running a constant risk of being eaten or infected, raid the base. Our quintet of protagonists escapes and begins their journey toward Beacon – a half-mythical (no one’s heard from them in a long time) city free of zombies, highly fortified and far away.
All of this was told a thousand times already. So what’s new?
Firstly, the zombie pathogen itself is a very nice touch. Not a virus, not a bacteria, a fungus. It opens a broad way to such an imagery! Fungal growth, mould, mycelia, hyphae, spores… Biology at its dirty, organic, vaguely threatening best. And the crafty notion of “masters of puppets” in all its spooky glory! I enjoyed these fragments of the book very much, revolting and intriguing at once. And I liked that close-to-truth lie about the main perpetrator, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis; bigger, badder and more menacing than in reality, but still, reminding us strongly of our undeniable animal affiliation – if it can infect ants, it might be able to infect humans too. Swine or avian flu, anyone?
Secondly, the characters are solid, well drafted, intriguing. I liked the main protagonist, Melanie, although giving her a genius IQ was an easy way out. I appreciated her evolution, the growing realization of her place in the world, coupled with a total lack of moral conscience. I even enjoyed the stereotypic figures of the teacher, the sergeant, the scientist – they could almost have no names, because throughout the book they are their roles, not personalities. Still, I liked them and cared for them well enough, knowing the limits and the rules of the genre.
I also enjoyed numerous allusions to Greek mythology, even though the retelling of the eponymous Pandora’s story seems unusually heavy-handed. And here we come to the main disappointment: the ending.
It seems to be a theme with my recent readings 😉 but believe me, it’s not imagined or simply a result of my critical super-pickiness. At least not entirely :P. With The Girl With All The Gifts the problem is straightforward and simple: the novel’s ending conforms logically and emotionally to the structure of myth chosen as its mold. However, it does not follow the logic of the world built in the novel. As simple as that: the implemented solution would not yield the anticipated results. It makes it seem rushed and forced at the same time. Plus, the ending elicited a rather surprising change of heart in me – I stopped liking the main protagonist. Ultimately, she had become a vessel for the author to carry out the preordained fate, and that development rendered her not tragic, but flat, like a piece of paper.
Still, the novel is interesting, written in a demanding, but ultimately rewarding style; abrupt, fickle, lending the story a bit of much needed unpredictability – if not in structure, than at least in the narrative technique. Fans of dystopias with added gross-out factor should rejoice :).