Return to the End of the World: A Review of The Boy on the Bridge

The Boy on the Bridge (2017)
Written by: M.R. Carey
Genre: Post Apocalyptic Fiction
Pages: 390 (Hardback)
Publisher: Orbit

Why I Chose It: Although M.R. Carey’s best-selling book The Girl With All the Gifts came out in 2014, I didn’t read it until this year. I thought it was a brilliant novel that combined genre and literary fiction into a book that was better than the sum of its parts. The book’s writing was beautiful, the plot was full of adventure, and it packed a surprisingly emotional punch. When I learned that M.R. Carey had written a second book set in the same universe, I knew I had to read it.

The premise:

Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.

Spoilers for both The Boy on the Bridge and The Girl With All the Gifts.

Discussion: The synopses for The Girl With All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge are extremely vague to keep the reader from knowing that these are zombie novels. This coyness was essential for a key plot point in The Girl With All the Gifts, but it wasn’t necessary for this book. The Boy on the Bridge is not exactly a prequel but it takes place in the same setting and general time. Both books are set in Great Britain after the apocalypse. A fungus has turned people into flesh-eating zombies, known as “hungries” to the surviving humans. In this book, a joint military and scientific team of twelve people departs from Beacon, civilization’s last stand, in the Rosalind Franklin, a tank-like mobile lab. Their purpose is to collect samples of the infected and work on finding a cure. Dr. Alan Fournier is the civilian commander, and Colonel Isaac Carlisle is in charge of the soldiers.

Not only does The Boy on the Bridge take place in the same world as The Girl With All the Gifts, but it also covers similar emotional territory. Both books feature gifted but unusual and vulnerable children, and their protective surrogate mother figures as main characters. The strange child here is fifteen-year-old Stephen Greaves. He can’t stand being touched, making eye contact, or lying, and the other team members call him “The Robot.” It’s presumed but never made explicitly clear that he is on the autism spectrum. Stephen is also a child genius; he invented e-blocker, a gel that keeps the hungries from being able to detect human scent. Dr. Samira “Rina” Khan is an epidemiologist who has been caring for Stephen since he was orphaned during the initial outbreak. Stephen is only along on the expedition because Rina refused to go without him. To make matters more complicated, Rina gets pregnant just weeks into their fifteen-month mission and Dr. Fournier is secretly playing a part in a political coup that is brewing back in Beacon.

Much of the potential suspense of this book is ruined if you have already read The Girl With All the Gifts. You know what happens to the Rosalind Franklin. You know that there is something very different about the children who have turned into hungries. If you haven’t read the first book, I think you would be confused about Beacon. I don’t think that Carey makes it clear here that Beacon is a fortified city that is in constant danger from both the hungries and the “junkers,” uninfected but savage humans who choose to live outside the city amongst the zombies. It’s hard to care about what is happening back in Beacon without this understanding.

Another flaw is that the majority of the scientists and soldiers on the expedition don’t stand out as characters and blend together, even Dr. Sealey, the scientist who is the father of Rina’s baby. It’s a minor quibble but I was also befuddled by Rina’s unplanned pregnancy. It doesn’t fit with the meticulous and careful scientist that she is, not does she seem to care that much for Dr. Sealey. I also found it strange that this society is still capable of preserving and examining tissue samples, but they don’t have any forms of birth control left? The leaders in charge of the Rosalind Franklin’s expedition planned for every possible contingency except the possibility that twelve people of mixed genders living in close quarters might have sex?

The novel’s flaws do not outweigh its strengths. The plot is action-packed, but the book also features haunting images, such as when Rina thinks back to the day that she met Stephen.

…Khan’s gaze finds a small boy — maybe five or six years old — lying in between two adults. Their bodies are bowed outwards, shielding him from attack on either side. They are like a pair of brackets around him, cordoning him off from the world. The couple bear so many wounds — bite marks, incisions and lacerations, in the man’s case a gunshot wound to the head — that it is impossible to tell how they died. Certainly they were trying to protect the child. Who has no visible wounds or injuries at all (p. 90).

There is a palpable love between Stephen and Rina. It’s ironic and fitting that Stephen, a person who is seen by others as robotic and cold, is the conscience of this story. He must weigh his love for Rina, the only human being whom he has ever felt affection for, against the greater good. Carey has a true gift for creating amazing, gut-wrenching endings. It’s incredibly rare for a book to move me to tears, but my eyes did well up towards the last part of this book. I also appreciated that there is an epilogue that answers the question of what happens to the world at large.

In conclusion: I worried that reading The Boy on the Bridge would feel like eating leftovers for dinner. The book does suffer in comparison to its predecessor, but it easy to find fault in a good book when it is being judged against a book that was truly innovative and great. Although they feature memorable characters, unforgettable plots, and great writing, both books are ultimately about what it truly means to be human. Put both The Girl With All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge on your list of books to read.


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