Ever read a book so good you felt like you had to bring back your long-dead book blog? No? Well, you obviously haven’t read Last Ones Left Alive then.1 First things first, this review warrants a shout-out to the Lockdown Book Club – I genuinely don’t think I would have picked this book up otherwise. Reader, it would have been a mistake. Last Ones Left Alive tells the story of Orpen, who has left her skrake-free island to head for the skrake-infested Irish mainland in a quest to find ominous Phoenix City.2 With her, she has her dog Danger and island companion Maeve, draped into a more-or-less functional wheelbarrow. Along the way, Orpen meets people and, uh, not-people and is forced to question the way into which she was socialized on her safe-haven island.
The book is what old white men would call Ithaka-esque and what the young folks would call a road trip book (in the widest sense), but most of all it is quintessentially coming-of-age. The writing is dominated by Davis-Goff’s masterful world-building, through which Orpen is forced to move during her quest for survival. A central motif is the transcending of boundaries, from childhood to adulthood, from island to mainland, from inside to outside. Davis-Goff uses discontinued spaces to craft an atmosphere so devoid of comfort, of content even, that reading leaves you in a perpetual state of being unsettled without being able to pinpoint why.3
There’s a special weirdness to reading post-apocalyptic fiction right now. One one hand, there’s a permanent This could have been so much worse, but also empathy for Orpen and her solitude (loneliness?). This year feels like being on an island, with the skrake on the mainland; it feels like rolling hills and rich green, but not for you. It feels like wood beneath fingers where there should be leaves and it feels like stale air in lungs when there should be salt and ambition. It feels like a girl with a wheelbarrow and determination. I think I would have liked this book all the same in 2019, but 2020 just feels different in everything I do – the books I read are no exception.
I loved this book even though I did not think I would. I’m 100% percent done with zombies, pop-culturally speaking, but this was a book that, almost incidentally, just happened to have zombies in it – they are by far not the star of the show, rather part of the setting. The only non-negligible quarrel I have with this book is it being marketed as fiercely feminist, to the absurd extent that this testimonial has made it into the book’s title on goodreads. It is not that this book was anti-feminist by any means, I just kept wondering what about it was so supposedly feminist. The strong female characters?4 Men being the bad guys? Is that feminist? Can gender roles even be defied in a post-apocalyptic society where your social cosmos consist of two women and an island? I don’t know. All I know is that feminism being appropriated as a marketing tool once again leaves a really bitter taste in my mouth.5
This book is for you if: you enjoy carefully crafted characters, suspense, train-of-thought narration, badass women, and atmospheric writing.
This book is not for you if: you’re looking for the whole guts and gory-thing and equate the words fast-paced and page-turner.
Click here to reveal (most likely incomplete) content notes for this book (NB: potential spoilers)Death. Violence. Animal death. Rape (alluded to, although we couldn’t quite agree on that in the book club). Apocalyptic Setting. Undead creatures. Gore.
1 To be fair, this was a shared effort by Last Ones Left Alive and Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations. More on that later (aka whenever I’ve gotten around to writing about that one).
2 Zombies, but make ’em Irish. We’ve had extensive discussions about the etymology of the word in our book club – one of the more fascinating aspects of this novel, for sure.
3 Honestly, I tend to put down empty spaces as lazy writing but my, it works so well here. Should I ever meet the author I’ll have to sit her down and make her tell me all about her world building process.
4 Please insert simultaneous air quotes and eye rolls here.
5 If you’re interested in this topic, I recommended checking out Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement or Kirsten Schilt’s essay “A Little Too Ironic”: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians.