What makes us human? What part of our existence makes us who we are? What puts us above others who do not categorize themselves in the same checklist as us? Is it our job to protect those that are different than us, or is it our duty to lord our authority over their existence? Within his novel M.R. Carey takes you through a thrilling, bittersweet journey that answers these questions and ultimately depicts what it means to be human.
Melanie knows nothing but her everyday schedule within her four concrete walls. She has seen nothing but concrete since as long as she can remember. She is used to having always at least two guards escort her to and from the classroom with guns drawn. She is used to being locked into her wheelchair with straps from her neck down to her ankles while her lessons with the other children take place, each in their own fortified chairs. She does not understand why the guards do not laugh when she says, ‘don’t worry I won’t bite.’ What Melanie does know is her love for her favorite teacher Miss. Justineau; her ancient Greek myths story-time the children and her treating the children like they are kids, earns her a special place in Melanie’s heart that she did not know was empty. Melanie is the brightest of her class, but when the stern, brooding sergeant comes in one day and yells at beloved Miss. Justineau, Melanie can’t get one phrase out of her mind, “ Not everyone who looks human is human.” She could not unravel the unknown riddle, and she does not understand why sometimes children leave and never come back.
M.R. Carey has not written the typical zombie novel. Melanie completely breaks that mold, as she embodies what it means to be human without fully being that. She is naïve, has hopes and dreams, and experiences love just as deep as any other person even though she is considered a monster. Carey uses beautiful language and imagery in the process of describing a devastated, dying world through the eyes of a child who sees its true beauty for what it is, “ A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given the depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at a the limit of vision that goes up and up like a tower.” Carey uses an underlining theme of Greek Mythology that involves origin myths and classical stories in order to compliment this novel centered around the ‘end of the world’ as well as to express human suffering not only physical but on a deeper level.
Miss. Justineau tries to do all that she can in order to protect her ‘class’ from the higher ups in one of the last standing military bases north of London. How do you tell a class of 30 ten year olds that the world for the past few decades has been ravaged by a fungus called ophiocordyceps and that when in its host eats all but vital areas in the brain creating ‘hungries’ that only live to fulfill their basic instinct to survive. You can imagine what their diet consists of. She does not see how the rest of the people on base cannot see the children for what they are… children. Even though she knows and has been told several times that the children are already gone. “When you walk into that classroom, you think you’re talking to children. But you’re not, Helen. You’re talking to the thing that killed the children.” The parasite has just not yet devoured all of their delicate minds reducing them to nothing more than the monsters outside of the walls of base. Miss. Justineau refuses to believe this and vows to protect the children no matter the cost.
When the base is overcome by hungries just as Melanie is about to ‘disappear’ as the other children had to be examined by Dr. Caldwell, the unexpected happens. She is rescued by none other than Miss Justineau. Even though Melanie does not understand the hunger that begins to edge itself into her when Miss. Justineau cradles her and tells her everything is going to all right, she has only one thought in her mind that pushes the hunger away, “ I love you Miss. Justineau. I’ll be a god or a Titan for you, and save you.” Thanks to her they are able to escape and find others who have escaped as well: the ever-brooding sergeant focused on everyone’s survival, a young scared officer trying to stay alive, and Dr. Caldwell who is only concerned with the safety of her last ‘specimen’ to fulfill her research. They embark on the journey back to one of the remaining safe bases south of London and learn along the way that they must work together in order to survive no matter how high the tension between each other. Whether they, the sergeant and doctor, like it or not, they need Melanie to be able make it through the journey.
Along the road they are forced to confront what they believe about the world and its future as well as they how they label and understand Melanie. She is the key to their future whether they want to believe it or not in a way that no one could have predicted. Through love and loss the fate of the human race is saved, dependent on what your own definition of ‘saved’ means.
Reviewed by Elizabeth L ’18