Amazing! (5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Orbit, January 2014
I read the Kindle edition. The paperback is 416 pages
To say that I merely ‘enjoyed’ this book would be an understatement, because I absolutely loved it and can’t stop raving about it. It may only be February but I’m already pretty sure that this novel is going to be one of my favourite reads of the year. I think that the real downside in that though, is probably whatever book I read next may seem a bit weak in comparison.
(Sorry, Shirley Jackson.)
Truthfully, I actually wasn’t sure what to expect when I purchased this book for my Kindle either (flagrantly breaking one of my literary resolutions for 2014), drawn to its intriguing lack of summary but then not getting around to reading it for nearly a month (tut tut). Once I started reading it however I had to finish it. Had to. This is the kind of book that you read in one sitting if you are fortunate enough to do so, because you really, really need to know what happens next.
I really don’t want to give away too much, as part of the brilliance of this riveting book is the way that it completely pulls you in; you just don’t anticipate all of the twists and turns that happen, or its sucker-punch of an ending. I will say however, that this is an amazingly well-crafted novel and thoroughly deserves all of the accolades that have come its way.
This is the summary of the book itself:
“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 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.”
Pretty vague, though I’m sure you’ll agree, oddly intriguing. As a consequence of this, I want to keep my review as succinct as possible without inadvertently giving away any spoilers. This sense of intrigue indeed sets the tone for the entire book- an appealing combination of drama, paranormal and dystopian fiction all seen through the eyes of a very unique ten-year-old girl.
One of the gifts that this author has is his ability to craft his characters. You start off adamantly believing that a character is either completely evil or totally pure, and then as the narrative develops you consider that not everything is as black or white as that. Characters evolve; you gain a depth of understanding about their past and have to consider how you yourself would behave in such a situation. They have been dramatically impacted by what has gone on around them in this new world and it has forced their behaviour to change and made them behave in perhaps ways they would not have even considered otherwise- in a non-ethical, harsh manner for some characters and for others, merely trying to compartmentalise everything that has occurred. I did think one of the characters became ever-so-slightly pantomime villain on occasion though, though thankfully my fears about this were allayed by the end of the book.
I positively adored Melanie, her thirst for knowledge and her hero-worshiping of her teacher, Miss Justineau; a woman who is her only link in essence to the ‘real’ world, although is she a friend or foe? It broke my heart that for this little girl, being chained up and fed grubs once a week was ‘normal.’ Her entire being was limited to a darkened cell and a windowless classroom- can you imagine what that kind of isolation must be like? That aside, she knows (and we as readers know) that something is seriously wrong- actually this isn’t normal- and that perhaps one day we may find out just what her solitary existence is really about.
The world-building in this book is brilliantly done with some epic descriptions of a completely altered United Kingdom set at some point in the near future. It’s bleak, depressing yet thoroughly atmospheric with some incredible moments of enlightenment and realisation amidst all of the heartache and despair. For me, it was actually pretty nice to read a book of this magnitude set within the UK for a change as well.
Though this is admittedly a novel with a very common subject matter, it is told in a fresh, original way. There is so much more I could say about this read but ultimately The Girl with all the Gifts made me smile, it made me sad, it made me laugh, yet most of all it made me care about its characters. It was a touching, thought-provoking story about what it really means to be human and I savoured every single word. If you only read one book this year, make it this one.