Expectations matter, which may explain why M.R. Carey’s apocalyptic survival tale The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) seems surprisingly underwhelming. Melanie is a precocious, intelligent young girl attending a peculiar school: she lives in a cell, feeds off live grubs, and her days are shaped by a nervous group of soldiers, scientists, and educators, including Melanie’s favorite teacher, Helen Justineau. It’s the only life Melanie knows, but she has a lot to learn—and when disaster strikes the school, it’s only a matter of time before Melanie uncovers the truth about the world beyond her walls, and about herself.
Carey’s narrative is confident and artful, and the early chapters are particularly compelling as the mystery of Melanie’s situation is gradually spelled out. I liked, without quite ever loving, Melanie, Helen, and the small tangle of characters that orbit around them. Based on buzz and the exciting early chapters, I expected to love this one. Alas, once the majority of the early questions are answered, the book progresses in more or less expected directions: a survival journey in a conventional horror genre. Carey’s spin on this kind of tale is effective, well developed, and highly detailed, but ultimately felt over-familiar. It resolves nicely, and I enjoyed the read; I’m sure it will make a spectacular horror movie. But the thrill of the intriguing early passages faded gradually, leaving me with a feeling of unrealized promise.