It begins in a classroom, what should be a benign place of safety yet is anything but, the students marshalled by armed soldiers. Strapped to her chair, Melanie adores Miss Justineau beyond all the other teachers and loves to read Greek mythology, associating herself with Pandora, “the girl with all the gifts,” a blessing and a curse as Melanie’s curiosity drives her to look beyond what is presented and ask why none of the children live with their parents like the families in their storybooks, why she cannot even remember her parents.
Harbouring a streak part rebellious and part hopeless optimism, Helen Justineau strives to encourage and support the children bound hand and foot to their chairs but has little more freedom than them, trying to comfort them without ever touching, to gauge what is in their minds without ever telling them who they are. Sergeant Eddie Parks is out of his depth, doing a lieutenant’s job in that was supposed to have been an eighteen month posting but has now been five years. Miss Justineau resents his presence but he is a necessary buffer, protecting the former airbase of RAF Henlow from the threat of what lies beyond the perimeter and what is held within, but there is a horror closer to home they both answer to.
Doctor Caroline Caldwell had hoped to be in the taskforce against the infection but when she wasn’t selected she swallowed her bitter pride and now works with substandard equipment in her laboratory where she dissects live subjects, choosing to regard them as dead since the moment the “tiny chemical wrecking balls” have taken hold. If she is to make progress she needs to establish the precise mechanism which changes humans into hungries, and for that she needs a subject infected but asymptomatic: she needs Melanie.
Having written for comics including Hellblazer, 2000AD, Batman, Fantastic Four and X-Men for over twenty years before moving to prose with the Felix Castor novels starting with The Devil You Know in 2007, Mike Carey is no stranger to finding new ways to approach a well-worn subject, and here he rebrands himself as M R Carey as he examines the dark side of Peter Pan, the boy who lives in a world of make believe and never grew up as Melanie tries to comprehend a world which has stalled with her frozen inside it.
Inevitably the situation changes when the base is attacked and abandoned, and while the escape from the stifling corridors to the countryside is a relief it is not without danger of its own; barely armed and without provisions or transport, the survivors must move by foot, foraging as they go. Avoiding both hungries and marauding junkers, death is the same whether it be under fluorescent strip or open sky as they head south to the different hell of Beacon, “bastard child of Butlins and Colditz.”
Making their way down roads akin to motorised versions of elephant graveyards through the horror of the burn zones (“We couldn’t kill the hungries so we killed ourselves”) until they arrive at a dead London which reminds of The Day of the Triffids, it lacks Wyndham’s broader commentary on society, and there are obvious echoes of …28 Days Later, though in Melanie, the carrier who is apparently spared the worst effects of the deadly infection she carries, there is an aspect of …28 Weeks Later though gladly little more.
The sense of danger occasionally lapses such as when trapped upstairs on the first floor of a private hospital despite the hungries swarming in the space below, nor is it a groundbreaking novel, but it is a new approach to a familiar subject and a gateway to those who may have children not quite yet old enough to watch The Walking Dead without nightmares, and it also serves as a reminder and celebration of the unique relationship between a gifted teacher and an even more singular student, even in the most extreme situations.
The Girl With All The Gifts is available now from Orbit books