Emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end, The Girl with all the Gifts is the most powerful and affecting thriller you will read this year.
Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.
There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom – a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.
Melanie was new herself, once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. They fall out, and then they’re gone.
Now she’s ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skin as white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she’ll be beautiful, with princes falling over themselves to climb her tower and rescue her.
Assuming, of course, that she has a tower.
In the meantime, she has the cell, the corridor, the classroom and the shower room.
The cell is small and square. It has a bed, a chair and a table. On the walls, which are painted grey, there are pictures; a big one of the Amazon rainforest and a smaller one of a pussycat drinking from a saucer of milk. Sometimes Sergeant and his people move the children around, so Melanie knows that some of the cells have different pictures in them. She used to have a horse in a meadow and a mountain with snow on the top, which she liked better.
It’s Miss Justineau who puts the pictures up. She cuts them out from the stack of old magazines in the classroom, and she sticks them up with bits of blue sticky stuff at the corners. She hoards the blue sticky stuff like a miser in a story. Whenever she takes a picture down, or puts a new one up, she scrapes up every last bit that’s stuck to the wall and puts it back on the little round ball of the stuff that she keeps in her desk.
When it’s gone, it’s gone, Miss Justineau says.
The corridor has twenty doors on the left-hand side and eighteen doors on the right-hand side. Also it has a door at either end. One door is painted red, and it leads to the classroom – so Melanie thinks of that as the classroom end of the corridor. The door at the other end is bare grey steel and it’s really, really thick. Where it leads to is a bit harder to say. Once when Melanie was being taken back to her cell, the door was off its hinges, with some men working on it, and she could see how it had all these bolts and sticking-out bits around the edges of it, so when it’s closed it would be really hard to open. Past the door, there was a long flight of concrete steps going up and up. She wasn’t supposed to see any of that stuff, and Sergeant said, “Little bitch has got way too many eyes on her” as he shoved her chair into her cell and slammed the door shut. But she saw, and she remembers.
She listens, too, and from overheard conversations she has a sense of this place in relation to other places she hasn’t ever seen. This place is the block. Outside the block is the base, which is Hotel Echo. Outside the base is region 6, with London thirty miles to the south and then Beacon another forty-four miles further – and nothing else beyond Beacon except the sea. Most of region 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burn patrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanie is pretty sure. It sends out burn patrols, to clear away the hungries.
The burn patrols have to be really careful, because there are lots of hungries still out there. If they get your scent, they’ll follow you for a hundred miles, and when they catch you they’ll eat you. Melanie is glad that she lives in the block, behind that big steel door, where she’s safe.
Beacon is very different from the base. It’s a whole great big city full of people, with buildings that go up into the sky. It’s got the sea on one side of it and moats and minefields on the other three, so the hungries can’t get close. In Beacon you can live your whole life without ever seeing a hungry. And it’s so big there are probably a hundred billion people there, all living together.
Melanie hopes she’ll go to Beacon some day. When the mission is complete, and when (Dr Caldwell said this once) everything gets folded up and put away. Melanie tries to imagine that day; the steel walls closing up like the pages of a book, and then . . . something else. Something else outside, into which they’ll all go.
It will be scary. But so amazing!
Through the grey steel door each morning Sergeant comes and Sergeant’s people come and finally the teacher comes. They walk down the corridor, past Melanie’s door, bringing with them the strong, bitter chemical smell that they always have on them; it’s not a nice smell, but it’s exciting because it means the start of another day’s lessons.
At the sound of the bolts sliding and the footsteps, Melanie runs to the door of her cell and stands on tiptoe to peep through the little mesh-screen window in the door and see the people when they go by. She calls out good morning to them, but they’re not supposed to answer and usually they don’t. Sergeant and his people never do, and neither do Dr Caldwell or Mr Whitaker. And Dr Selkirk goes by really fast and never looks the right way, so Melanie can’t see her face. But sometimes Melanie will get a wave from Miss Justineau or a quick, furtive smile from Miss Mailer.
Whoever is going to be the teacher for the day goes straight through into the classroom, while Sergeant’s people start to unlock the cell doors. Their job is to take the children to the classroom, and after that they go away again. There’s a procedure that they follow, which takes a long time. Melanie thinks it must be the same for all the children, but of course she doesn’t know that for sure because it always happens inside the cells and the only cell that Melanie sees the inside of is her own.
To start with, Sergeant bangs on all the doors and shouts at the children to get ready. What he usually shouts is “Transit!” but sometimes he adds more words to that. “Transit, you little bastards!” or “Transit! Let’s see you!” His big, scarred face looms up at the mesh window and he glares in at you, making sure you’re out of bed and moving.
And one time, Melanie remembers, he made a speech – not to the children but to his people. “Some of you are new. You don’t know what the hell you’ve signed up for, and you don’t know where the hell you are. You’re scared of these frigging little abortions, right? Well, good. Hug that fear to your mortal soul. The more scared you are, the less chance you’ll screw up.” Then he shouted, “Transit!” which was lucky because Melanie wasn’t sure by then if this was the transit shout or not.
After Sergeant says “Transit”, Melanie gets dressed, quickly, in the white shift that hangs on the hook next to her door, a pair of white trousers from the receptacle in the wall, and the white pumps lined up under her bed. Then she sits down in the wheelchair at the foot of her bed, like she’s been taught to do. She puts her hands on the arms of the chair and her feet on the footrests. She closes her eyes and waits. She counts while she waits. The highest she’s ever had to count is two thousand five hundred and twenty-six; the lowest is one thousand nine hundred and one.
When the key turns in the door, she stops counting and opens her eyes. Sergeant comes in with his gun and points it at her. Then two of Sergeant’s people come in and tighten and buckle the straps of the chair around Melanie’s wrists and ankles. There’s also a strap for her neck; they tighten that one last of all, when her hands and feet are fastened up all the way, and they always do it from behind. The strap is designed so they never have to put their hands in front of Melanie’s face. Melanie sometimes says, “I won’t bite.” She says it as a joke, but Sergeant’s people never laugh. Sergeant did once, the first time she said it, but it was a nasty laugh. And then he said, “Like we’d ever give you the chance, sugar plum.”
When Melanie is all strapped into the chair, and she can’t move her hands or her feet or her head, they wheel her into the classroom and put her at her desk. The teacher might be talking to some of the other children, or writing something on the blackboard, but she (or he, if it’s Mr Whitaker, the only teacher who’s a he) will usually stop and say, “Good morning, Melanie.” That way the children who sit way up at the front of the class will know that Melanie has come into the room and they can say good morning too. Most of them can’t see her when she comes in, of course, because they’re all in their own chairs with their neck straps fastened up, so they can’t turn their heads around that far.
This procedure – the wheeling in, and the teacher saying good morning and then the chorus of greetings from the other kids – happens nine more times, because there are nine children who come into the classroom after Melanie. One of them is Anne, who used to be Melanie’s best friend in the class and maybe still is except that the last time they moved the kids around (Sergeant calls it “shuffling the deck”) they ended up sitting a long way apart and it’s hard to be best friends with someone you can’t talk to. Another is Kenny, who Melanie doesn’t like because he calls her Melon Brain or M-M-M-Melanie to remind her that she used to stammer sometimes in class.
When all the children are in the classroom, the lessons start. Every day has sums and spelling, and every day has retention tests, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for the rest of the lessons. Some teachers like to read aloud from books and then ask questions about what they just read. Others make the children learn facts and dates and tables and equations, which is something that Melanie is very good at. She knows all the kings and queens of England and when they reigned, and all the cities in the United Kingdom with their areas and populations and the rivers that run through them (if they have rivers) and their mottoes (if they have mottoes). She also knows the capitals of Europe and their populations and the years when they were at war with Britain, which most of them were at one time or another.
She doesn’t find it hard to remember this stuff; she does it to keep from being bored, because being bored is worse than almost anything. If she knows surface area and total population, she can work out mean population density in her head and then do regression analyses to guess how many people there might be in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time.
But there’s sort of a problem with that. Melanie learned the stuff about the cities of the United Kingdom from Mr Whitaker’s lessons, and she’s not sure if she’s got all the details right. Because one day, when Mr Whitaker was acting kind of funny and his voice was all slippery and fuzzy, he said something that worried Melanie. She was asking him whether 1,036,900 was the population of the whole of Birmingham with all its suburbs or just the central metropolitan area, and he said, “Who cares? None of this stuff matters any more. I just gave it to you because all the textbooks we’ve got are thirty years old.”
Melanie persisted, because she knew that Birmingham is the biggest city in England after London, and she wanted to be sure she had the numbers exactly right. “But the census figures from—” she said.
Mr Whitaker cut her off. “Jesus, Melanie, it’s irrelevant. It’s ancient history! There’s nothing out there any more. Not a damn thing. The population of Birmingham is zero.”
So it’s possible, even quite likely, that some of Melanie’s lists need to be updated in some respects.
The children have lessons on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, they stay locked in their rooms all day and music plays over the PA system. Nobody comes, not even Sergeant, and the music is too loud to talk over. Melanie had the idea long ago of making up a language that used signs instead of words, so the children could talk to each other through their little mesh windows, and she went ahead and made the language up, which was fun to do, but when she asked Miss Justineau if she could teach it to the class, Miss Justineau told her no, really loud and sharp. She made Melanie promise not to mention her sign language to any of the other teachers, and especially not to Sergeant. “He’s paranoid enough already,” she said. “If he thinks you’re talking behind his back, he’ll lose what’s left of his mind.”
So Melanie never got to teach the other children how to talk in sign language.
Saturdays are long and dull, and hard to get through. Melanie tells herself aloud some of the stories that the children have been told in class, or sings mathematical proofs like the proof for the infinity of prime numbers, in time to the music. It’s okay to do this out loud because the music hides her voice. Otherwise Sergeant would come in and tell her to stop.
Melanie knows that Sergeant is still there on Saturdays, because one Saturday when Ronnie hit her hand against the mesh window of her cell until it bled and got all mashed up, Sergeant came in. He brought two of his people, and all three of them were dressed in the big suits that hide their faces, and they went into Ronnie’s cell and Melanie guessed from the sounds that they were trying to tie Ronnie into her chair. She also guessed from the sounds that Ronnie was struggling and making it hard for them, because she kept shouting and saying, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Then there was a banging sound that went on and on while one of Sergeant’s people shouted, “Christ Jesus, don’t—” and then other people were shouting too, and someone said, “Grab her other arm! Hold her!” and then it all went quiet again.
Melanie couldn’t tell what happened after that. The people who work for Sergeant went around and locked all the little screens over the mesh windows, so the children couldn’t see out. They stayed locked all day. The next Monday, Ronnie wasn’t in the class any more, and nobody seemed to know what had happened to her. Melanie likes to think there’s another classroom somewhere else on the base, and Ronnie went there, so she might come back one day when Sergeant shuffles the deck again. But what she really believes, when she can’t stop herself from thinking about it, is that Sergeant took Ronnie away to punish her for being bad, and he won’t let her see any of the other children ever again.
Sundays are like Saturdays except for chow time and the shower. At the start of the day the children are put in their chairs as though it’s a regular school day, but with just their right hands and forearms unstrapped. They’re wheeled into the shower room, which is the last door on the right, just before the bare steel door.
In the shower room, which is white-tiled and empty, the children sit and wait until everybody has been wheeled in. Then Sergeant’s people bring chow bowls and spoons. They put a bowl on each child’s lap, the spoon already sticking into it.
In the bowl there are about a million grubs, all squirming and wriggling over each other.
The children eat.
In the stories that they read, children sometimes eat other things – cakes and chocolate and bangers and mash and crisps and sweets and spaghetti and meatballs. The children only eat grubs, and only once a week, because – as Dr Selkirk explains one time when Melanie asks – their bodies are spectacularly efficient at metabolising proteins. They don’t have to have any of those other things, not even water to drink. The grubs give them everything they need.
When they’ve finished eating, and the bowls have been taken away again, Sergeant’s people go out, close the doors and cycle the door seals. The shower room is completely dark now, because there aren’t any lights in there. Pipes behind the walls start to make a sound like someone trying not to laugh, and a chemical spray falls from the ceiling.
It’s the same chemical that’s on the teachers and Sergeant and Sergeant’s people, or at least it smells the same, but it’s a lot stronger. It stings a little, at first. Then it stings a lot. It leaves Melanie’s eyes puffy, reddened and half blind. But it evaporates quickly from clothes and skin, so after half an hour more of sitting in the still, dark room, there’s nothing left of it but the smell, and then finally the smell fades too, or at least they get used to it so it’s not so bad any more, and they just wait in silence for the door to be unlocked and Sergeant’s people to come and get them. This is how the children are washed, and for that reason, if for no other, Sunday is probably the worst day of the week.
The best day of the week is whichever day Miss Justineau teaches. It isn’t always the same day, and some weeks she doesn’t come at all, but whenever Melanie is wheeled into the classroom and sees Miss Justineau there, she feels a surge of pure happiness, like her heart flying up out of her into the sky.
Nobody gets bored on Miss Justineau days. It’s a thrill for Melanie even to look at her. She likes to guess what Miss Justineau will be wearing, and whether her hair will be up or down. It’s usually down, and it’s long and black and really crinkly so it looks like a waterfall. But sometimes she ties it up in a knot on the back of her head, really tight, and that’s good too, because it makes her face sort of stand out more, almost like she’s a statue on the side of a temple, holding up the ceiling. A caryatid. Although Miss Justineau’s face stands out anyway because it’s such a wonderful, wonderful colour. It’s dark brown, like the wood of the trees in Melanie’s rainforest picture whose seeds only grow out of the ashes of a bushfire, or like the coffee that Miss Justineau pours out of her flask into her cup at break time. Except it’s darker and richer than either of those things, with lots of other colours mixed in, so there isn’t anything you can really compare it to. All you can say is that it’s as dark as Melanie’s skin is light.
And sometimes Miss Justineau wears a scarf or something over her shirt, tied around her neck and shoulders. On those days Melanie thinks she looks either like a pirate or like one of the women of Hamelin when the Pied Piper came. But the women of Hamelin in the picture in Miss Justineau’s book were mostly old and bent over, and Miss Justineau is young and not bent over at all and very tall and very beautiful. So she’s more like a pirate really, except not with long boots and not with a sword.
When Miss Justineau teaches, the day is full of amazing things. Sometimes she’ll read poems aloud, or bring her flute and play it, or show the children pictures out of a book and tell them stories about the people in the pictures. That was how Melanie got to find out about Pandora and Epimetheus and the box full of all the evils of the world, because one day Miss J showed them a picture in the book. It was a picture of a woman opening a box and lots of really scary things coming out of it. “Who is that?” Anne asked Miss Justineau.
“That’s Pandora,” Miss Justineau said. “She was a really amazing woman. All the gods had blessed her and given her gifts. That’s what her name means – ‘the girl with all the gifts’. So she was clever, and brave, and beautiful, and funny, and everything else you’d want to be. But she just had the one tiny fault, which was that she was very – and I mean very – curious.”
She had the kids hooked by this point, and they were loving it and so was she, and in the end they got the whole story, which started with the war between the gods and the Titans and ended with Pandora opening up the box and letting all the terrible things out.
Melanie said she didn’t think it was right to blame Pandora for what happened, because it was a trap that Zeus had set for mortals and he made her be the way she was on purpose, just so the trap would get sprung.
“Say it loud, sister,” Miss Justineau said. “Men get the pleasure, women get the rap.” And she laughed. Melanie made Miss Justineau laugh! That was a really good day, even if she doesn’t know what she said that was funny.
The only problem with the days when Miss Justineau teaches is that the time goes by too quickly. Every second is so precious to Melanie that she doesn’t even blink; she just sits there wide-eyed, drinking in everything that Miss Justineau says, and memorising it so that she can play it back to herself later, in her cell. And whenever she can manage it, she asks Miss Justineau questions, because what she most likes to hear, and to remember, is Miss Justineau’s voice saying her name, Melanie, in that way that makes her feel like the most important person in the world.