Book review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff
Last Ones Left Alive - Sarah Davis-Goff
You would think that there's nothing much more to add to the genre of zombie apocalypse novels and films, but it seems like there is always another spin that you can take on the subject. What has tended to get lost over time however is the original satirical outlook on society as subsequent treatments tend towards either survivalist manuals or horror slaughter-fests. The most significant social realignment in recent times has been the consideration of moving into a post-human society in MR Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts (and before that of course Richard Matheson's I Am Legend), but there have been numerous other works that consider the necessity of adapting, restructuring and basically starting from scratch again in a post-capitalist, post-consumerist society.
In one respect Sarah David-Goff's Last Ones Left Alive appears to be fairly straightforward in its survivalist narrative interspersed with moments of flash-eating horror even though the zombie lore is a little different here in her Irish setting. There are however perhaps other ideas that arise out of the female perspective that is adopted from the experience of one young woman. In Last Ones Left Alive, Orpen has left the security of a remote almost uninhabited island off the west coast of Ireland to journey across the dangerous landscape of Ireland that has been devastated, the human population all but wiped out by skrake, zombie-like creatures with a proboscis whose attack, bite and infect the human population.
There's no background at all about how the world has been overrun by this outbreak of skrakes, but you can imagine that science has never really had the luxury of exploring or find a way to contain the virus, such seems to be the rapidity with which it has spread. What we do have as an interweaving narrative is only the background to Orpen's life on Slanbeg with her mother Muireann and Maeve, the only inhabitants on the island. From her seventh birthday onward however, the older women have been training and preparing Orpen for the world outside, to survive on the mainland occupied by the skrake.
In the main narrative Orpen has left the island, her mother dead, Maeve being carried in a wheelbarrow, as Orpen sets out with her dog Danger to see if there is any of the human population alive in the fabled Phoenix City. Despite their training and precautions, Maeve has been bitten soon after their arrival on the mainland and could turn at any moment. Time is of the essence, but there are more dangers to be faced in the countryside than skrake. Built-up areas are dangerous and people can't be trusted. In fact, one of the lessons of warning that Orpen is given before she leaves the island is not just to be wary of skrake but men.
If there's a survivalist quality to Last Ones Left Alive then, it's also about surviving as a woman in a world where anyone can be a predator and you can trust no-one. Women in this society seem to be either categorised as breeders or banshees, so the prospects don't look good for Orpen. It seems a rather pessimistic outlook and hard to imagine why she would even leave the safety of an island free from skrake to face a world that is in dangerous decline. Like the recent William Wall book Grace's Day, you wonder if there's an Irish socio-political commentary here on the uncertainties of living on a small island opening up to the predatory capitalism of a globalised world, but Last One's Left Alive seems to be rather more intimate and straightforward than that.
At one stage Orpen gives some simple but truthful rationale for leaving the safety of Slanbeg, even when faced with such horrors that she experiences on her journey. "At least I saw something in my life. At least I'm not alone". Leaving aside the post-apocalyptic zombie aspect, Last Ones Left Alive does at least on one level cover some basic principles about family, society and the individual finding their own place in the world, overcoming fears and learning to trust. And certainly for a young woman that world is now a much more dangerous place, but it's a necessary journey to make. Perhaps you need to be a banshee to survive, or perhaps it's just women coming together in solidarity that can help dial the threat down a little and leave room for the world to grow into something better.