I finished “The Girl With All The Gifts” today, with that mixture of regret and deep satisfaction that only comes from reading a book that is so masterfully crafted that you don’t notice how it works because you’re too tied up in the emotions, the action, your deepening understanding of the people and their situation, the shock of the amoral inevitability of the scientific reality and the strong, REALLY strong need to know what happens next.
I’m not going to tell you what happens. I hate reviews with spoilers. I’m just going to tell you how it made me feel.
I fell in love with the enigmatic Melanie, long before I knew who she was; in fact from the moment that she told me that she, with her very pale skin, shouldn’t be called Melanie, because it means dark, and wants to be called Pandora because it means the girl with all the gifts and because the real Pandora was hard-wired to follow her curiosity wherever it took her, regardless of the consequences. I’m a man who owns three etymological dictionaries. How can I not love a ten-year-old girl who is fascinated with the origins of words?
As I started, slowly and stupidly but with great pleasure, (which is why there are no spoilers here) to understand Melanie and her situation, these words came back to me. She is Pandora, the girl with all the gifts: extraordinary, life-affirming, joyous gifts. She is also Melanie, filled with a darkness that belies her pale skin and which can never leave her.
This book is like that. Words have a meaning when you read them, then another meaning when you find out what happens next, and another meaning when you finish the book. That, by itself, is worthy of applause in any novel.
The early part of the book, when the larger context is obscured, and I had no more knowledge of the world than Melanie has in her windowless bunker, is deeply compelling and more than a little horrifying. It is entirely plausible, which is what makes it so disturbing. I was focused on Melanie, fascinated by her, horrified by the adults around her, willing her to survive their plans for her.
The surprising thing was that, when the context changes and the wider world is explored, the book gets better. Carey doesn’t indulge in cardboard-cutout evil baddies. The evil in his book is inherently human, committed by people who are doing what they must or even what they believe they should.
I enjoyed the fact that the focus didn’t stay entirely on Melanie. I got to see the world through the eyes of each of the four main characters who surround her and the view from each of them was fascinating.
The pace of the book is perfect: keeping me on edge while giving me time to think through and speculate about the ideas and letting me get to know the characters better – making my experience mirror that of the people in the story.
“The Girl With All The Gifts” is packed with action and violence and gruesome, hard-to-forget details of cruelty and pain both sophisticated and barbaric. It has all the ingredients of an action-blockbuster but uses them as seasoning rather than the main meal. The meat of the book lies in the reactions of the adults to Melanie and, eventually, in Melanie’s reaction to them. That takes this book from a blockbuster to something far more interesting.
The science is beautifully done. No dumbing-down but no worshipping at the altar of Popperian method either. Science is not a prop here – like a sonic screwdriver – infinitely useful and totally unexplained. In this book, science is literally knowledge of the truth. As such, it is completely indifferent to our hopes and our nightmares. It made me think that perhaps Truth was what the insatiably curious Pandora of the myth let out of the box. Which was why there was such a need for hope to be released into the world. It also made me recognize that I can only take so much truth. I KNOW that all of human history is a blip on the life of the planet but I can’t/won’t integrate that truth into my daily life – it does too much to take away meaning from my actions. This book shows how hard we work at denying the truth and how difficult it is to shape our lives around the truths we’ve learned.
The strongest impression that “The Girl With All The Gifts” left on me was that we are not defined by our birth or our knowledge or even our darkest actions, but by how we love. If Truth is the evil that Pandora released into the world, then Love is what keeps our hope alive.
If you’d like to hear an extract from “The Girl With All The Gifts”, click on the SoundCloud link below: