I just finished M. R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, and I’m heartbroken. And thrilled. And wonderstruck. It blew my mind. Let me ramble a bit about why I liked it, then try to dig into its structure a little more deeply.
Though it never uses the word, this is a zombie story. Humans are fighting a last-ditch action against “hungries,” people who have been infected by a fungal spore that shuts down the brain’s cognitive functions and hijacks the body and nervous system as a host for the fungus. Hungries live on protein from uninfected animals and humans, and the fungus is transmitted in their saliva to infect those they bite. They are mindless hunting creatures, solitary and terrifying–except some that are different. Melanie, the girl at the heart of the story, identifies herself with Pandora, whose name translates as “the girl with all the gifts” and who brings to the world great trouble, and also hope. She is one of a small number of children infected by the spore who retain their mental functions. They have been isolated at a heavily-guarded military base north of London, where they attend a school to see how much they can learn while a medical researcher tries to understand how they have been spared the brain-killing aspects of the infection. What makes this different from a standard zombie story is the depth of characterization. The military men tasked with keeping the humans safe, the doctor trying to find a cure before it is too late for humanity, the teacher who opens her heart to the terrifying children, and most of all Melanie herself, are fully realized three-dimensional people, and I cared about each one of them. As the story progresses inevitably to its tragic, heroic end, possibilities fade and flicker out for each one, but there is still hope, from the girl with all the gifts.
I find myself these days reading stories for fun and delight, and also for the workmanship of the plot. This story is a spot-on example of the three-act structure, with everything precisely in its ordained place. Since I’m going to be taking it apart and discussing different events from the story, beware:
- Inciting incident: The event that disrupts out the uneasy, unsustainable status quo we opened with is Dr. Caldwell’s decision to dissect Melanie and Miss Justineau’s determination to stop that from happening. This event takes place at the 20% mark, which is rather late in some ways. However, in a story like this one, which takes place in a world so different from our own and is largely told by a person very different from anyone we know, a lot of ground had to be laid out to begin with.
- First plot point: What tears everything apart happens precisely at the 25% mark: suddenly there are sirens and explosions and a window shatters, “and the hungries swarm over the sill.” Four adults (Dr. Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and two military men from the base, Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher) and one mysterious girl (Melanie) escape, trying to get to the human enclave at Beacon, 74 miles to the south.
- Midpoint reversal: After narrowly escaping the most terrifying hungry attack yet, two things happen. They are quieter than most of the big action-packed events in the story, but they represent an upheaval at a core level, and they’re exactly at 50% in the story. One is that we’ve now seen two hungries with unusual behaviors, closer to human though not nearly at Melanie’s level: a woman blindly pushing a baby carriage that held the dead body of her baby, and a man thumbing mechanically through family pictures in his wallet and singing snatches of an old song. This opens a whole new vista about what hungries can be. The other is that Melanie, who until this point has only wondered what she is, now realizes that she is herself a hungry, a monster. It rocks her, but she goes on.
- Second plot point: The five have fought their way to what seems like a miracle: a mobile lab, built just after the breakout and designed to enable scientists to travel in safety and study the infection. For Caldwell it is the chance to study the infection under the best possible conditions. For Parks and Gallagher it is firepower and armor plating and a motor to get them through London and on to Beacon. For Justineau it is safety from the hungries who surround them ever more densely the farther south they go. Only Melanie is not cheered by the vehicle. She is fighting her nonhuman nature more and more as she spends time with the humans, and needs to get away from them and feed so that she can get her hunger under control. But she runs across something that sends her mind reeling: a group of hungry children who hunt in packs and communicate with each other, just like her but feral, without the benefit of school. At this point, exactly 75% through the book, things tip and start racing to the inevitable conclusion.
- Climax and denoument: One by one everyone dies except Melanie and Justineau, and Melanie makes a frightful decision. If things go as they are, the attempts of the last few humans to kill the hungries will endanger the children, but there is no hope for humans in the end. It would be best if all the humans on the planet to become infected right away. Some of them will make new children before the fungus destroys them, and those children will be the future of the planet. So Melanie makes this happen. True to her alter ego as Pandora, she has unleashed the ultimate horror on the world, while preserving the most slender thread of hope: Miss Justineau, sealed in an environmental suit, begins teaching the next generation of children.
It is certainly true that a good genre novel doesn’t have to hew this precisely to the rules of the three-act structure, but this book is an example of how it can be done. I learned a lot by analyzing it, in addition to the pleasure of reading such a gripping tale.