I don’t think I’d have ever picked this book up, were it not for the fact it was book club’s book for November. I’ve never been a huge fan of zombies. When it comes to supernatural horrors we may or may not want to humanise, I am solidly in the vampire camp and always will be (I could rant about that for ages and ages, since I have a lot of thoughts about vampires, but that’s a post for another time… probably if I reread Anne Rice). Zombies just seem… more horrifying. And I grant you, when I think about it, that makes zero sense, since vampires are pretty horrifying too. I think it’s because zombies tend to be associated with narratives of widespread or global apocalypse, and the combination of “everyone’s dead” with “oh yeah, and their reanimated corpses may eat your brain so you die in brutal torment and agony then become one of them” just… nyyeeerrghghgh. They also tend to be mid-apocalypse, rather than post-apocalyptic, which is somehow worse. In a post-apocalyptic narrative, obviously awful things have happened… but I don’t have to be focused on them during the story, because they’re the background information, the setting and the exposition for a chapter or two, not… the world as it is and as informs the story’s progression. In a post-apocalyptic narrative, no one is fighting a losing battle to preserve the world as the reader knows it. It’s already gone, and there’s some peace in that. Whereas zombie novels and their proximity to the apocalypse just have an added layer of horrifying reality – the setting being close to life as I know it, but everything in the world going to shit. It freaks me out in a way vampire narratives don’t tend to, since they tend to be smaller scale and more personally focused.
That said, The Girl With All the Gifts is pretty small scale and personally focused. For most of the narrative, we have five characters. Not five main characters with a host in the background… just those five. That’s a smaller scale than nearly every other novel I read. But it’s still set against a backdrop of global apocalypse and uncertainty. They still live in the world left to them by a nebulous time that easily feels like it could be now. They were alive pre-apocalypse. They’re fighting to end the apocalypse. There’s still a sense that, for all that everything is utterly awful, it’s not over yet. And that’s what I don’t like. At least if I read a book with worldwide peril, a fantasy book say, I’m used to it being the sort of peril where I’m optimistic they’ll fix it. If you’re in a book of wizards and the world is going to end, you know… well… it won’t. It takes the teeth out of it, but in a good way.
I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m fundamentally a bit of a chicken. I like to feel like things will turn out ok in the end, and with zombie stuff (in my admittedly limited experience) that just isn’t true.
So yeah, I would never have picked this up on my own. But half of the point of going to a book club is to read things I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. There’s no fun in just reading exactly the books I would read when left to my own devices, right? And besides, disliking stuff can be pretty good fun.
Yeah, spoilers, I didn’t like it very much.
A lot of that dislike is just the genre. I can’t get over it being something I dislike, and however much I tried, it was always front and cente, preventing me from ignoring it. But there was more to it than that. Primarily, the fact I didn’t like or empathise with any of the characters. Partly, I think this is informed by the genre. It imbues everyone with a pessimism and quiet sadness that makes them, for me, harder to latch onto and care about because they’re all just a bit sullen because the world is going to hell. Which, fair enough, realism, but just not my thing. But on top of that, I don’t think Carey has really succeeded at making any of them likeable or supportable people. They’re too much just bundles of tropes, held together because the plot pushes them on too quickly for any of the cracks to start showing. We occasionally get what I suspect are meant to be touching moments, and those are the parts where I feel like the characters really fail, because we see how utterly without depth any of them are.
We’ve got the grizzled older soldier with mandatory scar, who’s been fighting the zombies for years and is great at what he does, but not a very nice man. Unwilling to trust civilians and determined just to get stuff done. Looks out for his underling but without any real sort of emotional investment. It’s just what he does. It’s all just what he does. Smarter than he looks. Underestimated by civilians. Find me five other characters that fit the trope (I can already think of them).
Then there’s the young soldier who hero worships his commanding officer and has a dark background he doesn’t want to return too. Generally a nice person, probably not an ideal soldier, but doing the job and trying ever so hard.
Nice woman, mother-ish figure, kindly. Kinda sexy. This one supposedly has a dark secret, but I guess that’s not that unusual either. Has morals and will fight for them, primarily with the soldier. Though in this case, Justineau’s moral choices and what she’ll fly of the hook for seem so erratic that it doesn’t really work. Sometimes she’ll hold her ground over something and I just went “whut… why this” and it never really felt satisfyingly explained.
And then cold, unfeeling scientist. Lives for science. Will die for science. Science always. Can’t talk, too busy doing Science. Dedication to Science has rendered the word “science” utterly meaningless to the reader and to herself at this point. Also ambitious and out to prove how good she is at science. Will do morally questionable or downright awful things for the sake of the greater good (because she’s a hardcore utilitarian) or just for the sake of SCIENCE. And I now have semantic saturation for the word “science”. Great.
And then we have the zombie kid, who for me was just… every other supernatural precocious child. She never really felt or read like a child to me. She’s meant to be a genius, but she should be emotionally stunted because of her upbringing. And she isn’t really. She’s just like a tiny, occasionally immature adult.
So there’s nothing there that’s really new or exciting. They’re all people I could find you parallels for in other media and not think I was making much of a stretch to draw the comparison. And the story does much the same thing. It bundles together trope after trope, so you never feel like you’ve actually gained anything by reading it. They go on a journey through the zombie-infested countryside (while being chased, maybe? That bit kinda fades out without much explanation) to get back to the last known bastion of civilisation. On the way, they must find food and shelter and science-knowledge, and fight off the zombies they find, while interacting and growing as people. Only they don’t really grow as people. The kid kinda does, but only in the sense of learning more and becoming more of a super genius… and maybe getting a bit of cynicism. But even then, it doesn’t feel like much.
I have been known to like books that don’t do things that are new, just because they do them well, but I don’t think Carey has done that here either. It’s a mediocre character novel, when what it really needed to be was a stunning one, to counteract the mediocrity of the setting. If he’d made just one character that I loved and cared about, I think that would have made all the difference.
And that really surprises me, because it turns out I’ve read something by him before – Lucifer. And that has such utterly brilliant characters, even leaving aside the fact that the central one came gifted to him from Neil Gaiman. Some of the as-far-as-I’m-aware-original characters are glorious and I adore them. So I don’t quite know where the differences have crept in. Book club suggested this is partly because the book was very much written also for film (which I didn’t know at time of reading, and might have changed how I got on with it, but certainly in hindsight is incredibly obvious) but I’m not sure that can wholly account for it. Even if an actor is going to do a lot of the work of making a character have feeling to the audience, you surely have to give them something to work with? I don’t know. Or maybe it’s because when he did well at characters, they were in a different medium? But then I’d have thought proper characterisation is much harder in a graphic novel, where you have fewer words to work with and less easy access to, for example, the internal monologue (which he uses extensively for Melanie, the child zombie, and still doesn’t really render her care-about-able). So I think, for all the arguments I heard to the contrary, I’m still mentally classifying this as poorly executed.
The one thing he does do well is create the visualisation of the setting. I could really really see the countryside and streets and dark houses they wandered through, especially when they got to London and he absolutely grounded it in the geography. He picked the right way to show us the empty streets, the right details to draw on and skim over, the right (creepy) scenes to dwell on – empty theatres are just mildly horrifying, after all. But what he was drawing so beautifully and clearly was something that was incredibly familiar already. I couldn’t tell you a specific one, but the pictures I was getting in my mind were the pictures of every zombie film I’ve ever watched, every zombie tv show. And while I admire his skill in drawing that landscape, it’s not an original one, and so the achievement is still slightly tainted.
Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, because I do need to step outside my comfort zone from time to time, and while I would love to discover new things I like while I’m out there, sometimes it’s nice too just to get confirmation that I do know my own tastes pretty well. I’d probably still read something by Carey in normal book form, just based on how much I enjoy Lucifer, but I’d be more wary, based on this. I don’t think I will ever watch the film… but that’s mostly because I’m a chicken who gets freaked out when she’s on her own late at night in an empty flat*, as well as slightly the dislike of the book and the genre. I think, if you like this sort of thing, it probably would make quite a good film. Just not an amazing one. I won’t be recommending this to other people (except flat-mate, to see if he agrees with me… so maybe I shouldn’t let him see this post first in case he won’t read it), because… well… I just don’t really think it’s any good at all.
On a more positive note, the next Peter Grant novel by Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree, came out on Thursday, and was posted neatly through my door on the same day. I’m already reading it, and will hopefully post soon in a much happier tone of voice, because I do love that series an awful lot.
*I read a fair proportion of this late at night, on my own, in a very silent flat and got a little bit freaked out and unable to sleep. Probably because it was the London-based section and my flat is in central London. This genre really just does creep me out somewhat.