Why every Classicist needs to read: M R Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts
“Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her ‘our little genius’.
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up.
Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.”
The Girl With All The Gifts was described as a ‘word-of-mouth bestseller’ when I found it on Audible.com. I’d been looking for a good read (or listen) after Natalie Haynes’ The Amber Fury, and the brief description, containing the magic words ‘class’ and ‘teacher’, as well as the mystery of the gun-toting paidagogoi, made me click ‘BUY’ immediately.
The title, The Girl With All The Gifts, also refers to the mythological character of Pandora, the first mortal woman, her name coming from the Greek words παν (pan) “all” and δωρον (doron) “gift”, and I was very pleased to find that the character of Miss Justineau is a Classics teacher, using the book ‘Tales The Muses Told’ by Robert Lancelyn Green to inspire the children in her class and help them understand the world around her. In The Amber Fury, teacher Alex Morris’ class find Greek Tragedy surprisingly relevant to their modern lives. The pupils in Carey’s novel, especially the central Melanie, similarly use the myths to gauge their emotional responses to their inmate-like existence, but, in addition, they also use the myths to populate their very limited world: Melanie loves the story of Pandora, and also knows all about the super-man Achilles, the legendary bowman Odysseus, the roving Aeneas, and the fall of Troy, and uses these stories to describe what happens to her. In fact, for everything Melanie experiences in her reality she gives a mythological simile to help us understand it — an untraditional use of the literary technique, originally created to illustrate an amazing or unbelievable event by using imagery of the natural and normal human world to compare it to. In fact, it suggests rather a mirror of the myths themselves, and this is where the text starts to become increasingly interesting…
SPOILERS: I didn’t want to write about The Girl… originally, because the genre it actually belongs to comes as quite a surprise, albeit early enough in the text. As I listened to my audiobook version, my grin because extremely wide, and I didn’t want to ruin that pleasure for anyone else. However, as it comes out next month as a ‘Major Motion Picture’ starring Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton next month and it’s going to be everywhere, I don’t think I’m going to be spoiling it much by telling you now: it’s a zombie novel. A post-apocalyptic zombie novel. How very zeitgeist. Which, overall, makes it a pretty unique thing for Classicists: a post-apocalyptic zombie novel with a Classics-obsessed protagonist.
Just as The Amber Fury featured a set of pupils learning about their world through the unfamiliar Classics format of Greek Tragedy, The Girl… takes that a step further: a semi-Dark-Age post-apocalyptic world with its own past mythology — the reader’s own current, modern world — uses ancient Greek mythology to try and make sense of it. It packs a real punch.
The book is fantastic — a great, gripping story with a whole slew of identifiable characters that make it ideal for 15-year old students upwards (maybe even younger, depending on your view of swearing, because obviously you don’t get post-apocalyptic situations without swearing) and has enough Classical reference to really increase the enjoyment of anyone with even only a little knowledge of mythology. That it’s also had a big-name film adaptation is brilliant news, only I really hope the film will make the most of the mythological backbone of the text; after the slew of not-brilliant myth-based films of recent years, Classics really deserves a good one, preferably with that all-important zeitgeist-added relevance.