Yesterday she thought that the hungries were like houses that people used to live in. Now she thinks that every one of those houses is haunted. She’s not just surrounded by the hungries. She’s surrounded by the ghosts of the men and women they used to be. [loc.3177]
Melanie is top of her class. She's ten years old. She lives on a military base and is studied by scientists. She has a crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau, who reads Greek myths to the children, and shows some affection for Melanie. Sergeant Parks, on the other hand, dislikes and fears her. Melanie doesn't know why.
This is post-apocalypse Britain, variant zombie: the 'hungries' infest the cities, mindlessly devouring any living beings. If the victims survive, they too become infected. Ophiocordyceps, a parasitic fungus, alters their behaviour to propagate more effectively, but it only does so in blood. Otherwise there'd be nothing at all, instead of a few remnants, left of global civilisation.
The Girl with all the Gifts reminded me of old-school science fiction, H. G. Wells and Jack London and so on, though I suspect they wouldn't have considered a little girl an engaging protagonist. I think the novel works because of Melanie's initial ignorance, and subsequently her determination to live and to soak up the new-found world outside the base:
The world pours in through her eyes and ears, her nose, her tongue, her skin. There’s too much of it, and it never stops coming. She’s like the drain in the corner of the shower room. [loc.1245]
Melanie isn't quite like a normal ten-year-old girl. She certainly has different interests, and different life experience. But her upbringing enables her to confront some unpleasant facts courageously and inventively -- and, in doing so, she changes the people around her. A really resonant moment for me was Parks' epiphany: "He has a sense, for the first time in his soldiering career, of what a war crime might look like from the inside." [loc.4534]
I still can't decide if I liked this novel, but I found it compelling and provocative reading.
NB: a friend and I were discussing whether this is a feminist novel. It's true that it has a female protagonist; that the three most important characters are all female; that none of these are defined by their relationships with men. (Indeed, the resolution is pretty much a denial of sexual relationships!) But K argues that there is a lack of embodiment, and I think I agree.