“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.”
The ‘Girl’ is Melanie, a highly gifted 10 year old girl. The story opens in a prison cell where she lives. Every morning she is muzzled with a man pointing a gun at her head & wheeled into the ‘classroom’ with other children. All the lessons are tests to find out how the kids retain & process information. Melanie wants to learn and impress her favorite teacher, Miss Helen Justineau. These normal looking children love books & lessons and are also driven into an uncontrollable feeding frenzy every time they smell human flesh.
Suddenly we learn that the kids are a highly intelligent class of Hungries or zombies who still show signs of intelligence & emotional responses. (The buildup at this stage is insane!) Melanie’s ‘school’ is Hotel Echo, a heavily guarded military base away from human settlements, or whatever is left of them. It’s used to study intelligent Hungries to find a cure for the virus.
Welcome to Britain, in a post-apocalyptic world, where a deadly virus Ophiocordyceps has wiped out half the global human population. The world is now divided into humans, Hungries and ruthless human survivalists called Junkers. Characters are introduced quickly; some are done away with immediately with almost cavalier disregard to human lives, because that’s the kind of world we’re living in.
When Hotel Echo is compromised, five survivors-Dr. Caroline Caldwell, head scientist, Sergeant Ed Parks, head of security & a veteran zombie killer, his young & terribly naïve subordinate Kieran Gallagher, Miss Justineau & Melanie embark upon a journey to find a way to Beacon, a fortified zone out of the reaches of the virus, the Hungries and the Junkers.
The author does a fantastic job of creating this bleak, dystopian world filled with colorful characters with checkered pasts. We are introduced to this unknown and unwelcoming world through different POVs. The mood is that of constant suspicion, open hostility, strained nerves and muted fear. There is an all-pervasive sense of sadness and preternatural calm before hell keeps breaking loose with unpredictable certainty.
I’m not an authority on the Undead. My exposure to zombies in pop culture is limited to Go Goa Gone, World War Z, I’m Legend and four episodes of The Walking Dead. So I’ll be confounded if I am ever asked to consider the ethics of killing zombies. If a human-turned-monster wants to make me his dinner, I will respond with vicious cruelty and end his (life?). But a part of me would die inside. What a moral quandary!
So when Dr. Caldwell, the cold, calculating head scientist (possibly the most fascinating character in the book) obsessed with finding a cure, treats the kids like research samples and saws into their brains, I don’t judge. She has a morbid fascination with the parasite. She sees Melanie for what she is-an Undead riddled with a deadly pathogen with a taste for human flesh and therefore a potential test subject Number One. Sergeant Parks, an ace military man, threatens Melanie or calmly ensures a steady supply of ‘experiment samples’ for Dr. Caldwell. I do not even try to understand.
But I flinch. Because two chapters back these same kids were reciting nursery rhymes and asking all sorts of questions with the wide-eyed curiosity of any 10 year old. Miss Justineau keeps questioning the ethics of Caldwell’s research. But as Caroline dispassionately explains the science behind the outbreak, we can’t help but wonder-does this make her or Parks the heartless monsters or simply faced with tough choices as a world overrun with zombies desperately awaits a cure?
It is Melanie & her complex relationship with the world around her that capture the readers’ imagination. She has no last name, no birthplace no other identity to distinguish her from thousand other Melanies that might be walking the face of the earth. We don’t even know if Melanie was the name given to her at birth. She still can’t control her instincts, something she is embarrassed to admit in front of Miss J. She is confused, trying to figure out her place in the scheme of things.
But she is also a child exploring a world hitherto unknown to her. We are struck by a sense of wonder, a child’s wonder, as she is finally free. Free to run, experience the fascinatingly new sights & sounds around her. And free to enjoy the company of Miss Justineau outside the confines of her cell.
“From today, every day is a Miss Justineau Day!”
Such honest joy that only a child can express with zero inhibitions!
But she also knows the danger posed by her to others, esp Miss J, whom she feels extremely protective towards. For a 10 year old, she has the level of maturity that the adults often fail to display. She single-handedly fights Hungries. She is incapable of feeling bitter. She insists on being kept on a leash, a gesture that confuses and even aggravates Parks who is used to animosity, not cooperation from Hungries. It’s almost as if no one knows what to do with her. Cut her up? Kick her out of the group? Hug her with words of comfort and assurance which no one is clearly feeling?
For a science fiction where science often takes the backseat and emotions take over, TGWATG does a marvellous job of de-jargonizing virology. The research is scrupulous and often you find yourself admiring just how smart & evolved the virus is. It is sick but brilliant, much like the minds of genius supervillains.
The author packs in just the right amount of warmth and heart-wrenching moments when exploring the relationship between the bitter, cynical and self-loathing teacher Miss Justineau & Melanie. The narrative also diverges into interesting perspectives. Caroline’s actions can be attributed to something more than a misplaced motivation for saving humanity. Through the cynical, no-nonsense Sergeant Park who has seen terrible devastation at close quarters, we see a transformed version of Britain and the world at large. Kieran Gallagher is a collateral damage; Beacon lights no hope in his life. And Melanie is the victim of heartbreakingly cruel circumstances.
Hello zombie traditionalists expecting gun battles & some good old-fashioned action , you won’t be disappointed either!
The book has its fair share of edge-of-the-seat thrills and heart-stopping moments lurking around the corner. 200 pages into it, the tension is almost palpable, the sense of doom and menace ratcheting up with every turn of the page. Some of the chapters end in cliffhangers leaving you pulling your hair out in desperation!! And finally we see the menacing, heart-breaking, mind-bending narratives all converging into a single & neat resolution.
It is an unsettling story that puts a new perspective on the traditional zombie narrative. The horror depicted here is more a reflection of our capacity for violence in a collapsed society & revolves less around drooling, flesh-eating monsters. Is a movie adaptation in the offing? I hope so. Is a sequel wanted? HELL YEAH!
Do the biologically dead not deserve the rights otherwise reserved for the living? What happens to your emotions when you’re dead? What happens to them when you’re born dead? Does the end justify the means?
We don’t know yet. Maybe we will never know. We do know one thing for sure. It is the end of the world as we know it. But it also heralds the beginning of a new world. It is both despair and hope. Destruction & creation. In a startlingly clear moment of realization, we along with Melanie who has been fed a steady diet of Greek mythology just know:
“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.”