Every morning, ten year old, 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.
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 best day of the week is whichever 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.
Melanie, along with twenty or so other children are being kept on an army base in a post apocalyptic Britain. Miss Justineau is one of the teachers and Melanie’s favourite. Bright and intelligent, she is obsessed with the tales her Miss Justineau has told her, tales about heroes fighting monsters, about overthrowing the titans who formerly ruled the world, and about Pandora, the girl who unleashed so much misery upon mankind. She wonders about her parents.
“Whose children are we, Miss Justineau?” In most stories [Melanie] knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus…We’re in an orphanage,” Anne guesses. (The class heard the story of Oliver Twist once, on another Miss Justineau day.)
…The ghost of her parents’ absence hovers around her, makes her uneasy.
Melanie thinks of an exception to the mother and father rule, Pandora, who was made out of ‘gloopy clay’. She thinks this is better than having parents who you never get to meet.
Although Melanie is content enough with the world that she knows, she is concerned when children from her class suddenly disappear; taken by the aggressive Sergeant Parks to Dr Caroline Caldwell’s lab, never to return.
You should ask yourself … why you’re so keen on thinking of me as the enemy. If I make a vaccine, it might cure people like Melanie, who already have a partial immunity to Ophiocordyceps. It would certainly prevent thousands upon thousands of other children from ending up the way she has. Which weighs the most, Helen? Which will do the most good in the end? Your compassion, or my commitment to my work?
This argument of course refers to more than just this narrative and alludes to the wider arguments of research ethics. Is Caldwell’s drive to save humanity, motivated by a desire for power or possible lunacy? Ophiocordyceps is the name of the disease that the children have, though it’s more than a disease. Caldwell uses the children in her experiments without compassion.
You want this one?” Sergeant asks…”Our little genius?” Dr Caldwell says. “Wash your mouth out, Sergeant. I’m not going to waste number one on a simple stratum comp. When I come for Melanie, they’ll be angels and trumpets.”
The structure of the narrative divides the story between five characters, telling their story from their own point of view and providing the text with its own natural breaks. As well as Melanie and Miss Justineau, there’s Private Kieran Gallagher who has a lesser part, Sergeant Parks, the man in charge of the base, and Caroline Caldwell, the scientist who wants to experiment on Melanie to find out why she’s so intelligent.
But, before she can do this, there is an invasion and in the confusion that follows, Melanie escapes along with the four main characters who form an unlikely band of (nearly all) heroes. When outside of the army base, she sees a burnt out house with heat shadows of an adult and a child. Melanie measures herself against the smaller shape.
What she thinks is: this could have been me. Why not? A real girl, in a real house, with a mother and a father and a brother and a sister and an aunt and an uncle and a nephew and a niece and a cousin and all those other words for the map of people who love each other and stay together. The map called family.
The novel’s title is a reference to Melanie’s favorite myth, that of Pandora, whose name means “all gifts.” Melanie is a mystery to herself and, as she begins to open the box of who she is, she finds both the capacity for terrifying evil, but also for strength, love and resilience.
And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.
The children in this story are orphans, deprived of parents or even an adult who cares for them except for Miss Justineau. The story though, has much more than orphanhood in it, things that I can’t mention by name otherwise I will be eaten alive. You will have to read it yourself and find out. At its heart in its simplest but most powerful form, is learning how to trust one another, and how once you have learnt to trust, love will follow.
I loved this book. From page one I found myself rooting for Melanie, whatever was going on I wanted her to to survive. The story gripped me and wouldn’t let go. If you’d like to try a different genre and are not sure what to read, give this a go, I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
The world premiere film The Girl With All the Gifts, directed by Colm McCarthy, starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and newcomer Sennia Nanua, opened at the 69th Locarno Film Festival this week and is due in cinemas mid September.
Follow Mike Carey on Twitter: @michaelcarey191