Actions Can Have Horrifying Consequences In 'The Boy On The Bridge'
In 2014, M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts wrapped a coming-of-age tale in a zombie apocalypse and assured us that the children were our future, except for the part where everyone alive was kind of doomed to become fungus-brained "hungries." The last few bastions of human civilization could try any ethically-questionable miracle cures they wanted, but once you caught a case of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, it was game over, man. And given that The Girl With All the Gifts ended with an airborne mutation, only Melanie — a second-generation hungry who retains her reason — was going to offer much hope for the future.
The Boy on the Bridge returns to this world for a sidelong prequel detailing what, exactly, happened to the original mission of the Rosalind Franklin, the impenetrably-armored mobile science lab that Melanie and her motley crew commandeer in The Girl With All the Gifts. And Carey seems to know that, given the bleakness of the first book, there's not much point pretending there might be a happy ending here. Instead, The Boy on the Bridge has the familiar shape of a disaster movie, and you're shoulder to shoulder with the crew of the Rosalind Franklin as they realize what they're up against and start calculating who stands a chance of making it out alive.
The crew is once again an uneasy, morale-devouring mix of determined scientists and resentful military, with one precocious youngster who has the power to upset the delicate balance. Greaves is a fifteen-year-old science prodigy, perceived as either somewhere on the autism spectrum or irreversibly shaken by childhood trauma depending on who's doing the perceiving, and his interest in the hungries for reasons beyond their tissue samples ends up powering many of the novel's twists. (By extension, he's also the source of some of the book's more demanding suspensions of disbelief.)
But the stakes here are a little more institutional than in The Girl with All the Gifts; there are several sidelong parallels to be found in the oppressive government, the scientists racing to solve a global problem before it's too late, and the plain fact that any pathogenic zombie setup is a superbug metaphor waiting to happen. And for the most part, Carey uses this larger crew and the slightly earlier timeline to explore the anxiety and desperation of living on the precipice of a breakdown. Civilization is precarious, but everybody still has the energy for government coups, and the scientists start out with a shred of hope that there's a cure. You can imagine how well that goes.
There are occasional beats of bone-dry self-awareness, particularly whenever things are lined up to connect with The Girl with All the Gifts. But despite the many point-of-view characters and the ethical dilemmas of a cure, there's also a certain remoteness to all the machinations. Though the stakes are clear and the group's escalating disasters turn into ethical clashes, the pieces don't connect into a compelling whole. (For me — and perhaps fittingly, given the subject matter — this series is like watching a cooking show; you can see the work that goes into the dishes, but you can't satisfy yourself with what's been made.)
But for those who enjoyed the first novel, The Boy on the Bridge is a careful companion, including thematic parallels that remind us, in sometimes horrific ways, that our actions always have wider consequences than we think.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.