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On Structure: The Girl with all the Gifts

One of the big books of 2014 is set to be M.J. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts. It’s published by Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown, and came out in January. It’s already got 40 5* reviews on Amazon (the majority of reviews). It’s got a great title and a great cover. Before I picked it up, I was warned how good (read: scary) it was, and had to push myself to read it, not a great fan of horror or zombie works (read: terrified).

On Structure

And while I did read it in five days, and was pulled all the way through by the competent storytelling, I’m more in line to agree with the 3* reviews – there’s something in the end disappointing about the book, which begins with such promise, and yet falls far short of the emotional impact of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or even Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Both of which have stayed with me a long while. I can’t see The Girl with all the Gifts doing the same.

What was really interesting to make sense of, however, was looking at the work as a writer. So, looking at, among other things, structure. I didn’t consider this until I got to about page 190, pretty much precisely half way through, when it was suddenly very clear we’d reached the midpoint.

In John Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story, that midpoint comes half-way through the film, TV show, or novel, and is the breakthrough in knowledge. The point, he says, of no return. It’s when the protagonist finally realises the secret that has been slowly dawning on them since the beginning of the book.

So on page 193, the young protagonist, Melanie, finds proof (the author even calls it ‘proof’) of what she is. There’s no hiding from this truth. It is the breakthrough. And as per lesson in structure, it comes at exactly the right time, half-way through. Structure for a writer is what keeps your pace working. The novel moves along not too fast, or not too slow.

(Which is why I also agree with this review that the actual conclusion of the book happens way too fast—the outcome of it all happens within a page or two. The resolutions for the characters happens so quickly as to make you wonder why you spent the last 400 pages with them.)

But what is also obvious is that there are clear arcs for the other characters that the author (and his friends, who he brainstormed with—who says the author’s job is lonely?) has worked out. So the ruthless doctor realises, just hours before her death, the truth of her search for the pathogen that has caused the apocalyptic scenario. The hard-ass soldier dies happy after being redeemed by a woman. The teacher who accidentally killed a child before the Breakdown is now ‘saved’ by this child, and so her redemption secured.

So structurally it’s all in place, if in the end a little obvious.

Except it’s not. What’s missing, if we are going by John Yorke’s five act structure, is the worst moment. The doubt and regression, before the final acceptance and mastery, of the knowledge that leads to the change in these characters (the change that is the heart of all narrative; the magic and desire, according to Catherine Belsey, of why we read).

5-act

What happens is the young girl discovers this new knowledge about herself… and accepts it. All those wonderful hints in the first half of the book of her acute intelligence and strategizing mind that make you wonder ‘will she won’t she’ become a true monster are never used to test her acceptance of her own ‘evil’ – she basically understands who she is, and accepts it, and masters it. The moment where she realises she needs to ‘feed the evil’ she removes herself from the dangerous situation, meaning the people who could really test her knowledge and resolve are not in the room. So she never really tests this resolve. Rather, she comes to the rescue, becomes the hero. As one of the 3* Amazon reviewers  says, in the end the book is for boys and girls, princes and princesses. The only tension in the final half of the book, then, is plot-driven, not character-driven.

And sadly what begins as a wonderful premise in setting up complex relationships between the teacher Helen Justineau and the girl Melanie then fails away into stereotypical outcomes for a thriller. The relationships deepen to a point, and then stop deepening, except through plot-driven mechanisms. It’s a real shame, because the initial emotional impact just drains away.

It must be very hard, however, as a writer to deal with personal catastrophe in a narrative when the plot catastrophe is so overwhelming, as in this case. That’s a useful thing to think about in writing any speculative or post-apocalyptic fiction.

There are also a few other niggles. The narrative voice is inconsistent. It sometimes is very close third person with the young girl Melanie, seeing things only as she would see them, and then jumping right away into a very knowing, wry and sarcastic voice that you can only think is the author’s own. There are also inconsistencies in time and continuity – some of the things just don’t make sense if the Breakdown happened twenty or thirty years before, rather than say six months or a year.

It’s still a good book. Still one I’d recommend reading. But also one that hasn’t lived up to the expectations and, more importantly, its potential.

Plenty of other reviewers have had their say too, so don’t just take my word for it. Helen Lowe, Carody Culver, the goodreads.com community, James Smythe in The Guardian, Dave Golder in SFX Mag, and Thea at the Book Smugglers, to get you going.