LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE / AUTHOR: SARAH DAVIS-GOFF / PUBLISHER: TINDER PRESS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
A tale of survivors struggling against a voracious enemy in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Irish landscape might not sound like ideal bedtime reading in the current climate. Yet, if you can bear the discomfort and the growing suspicion that this might be a factual instruction manual rather than an imaginative work of fiction, then you’ll quickly be drawn into the bleak and brutal world. It’s startlingly brought to life by Sarah Davis-Goff in this haunting, often poetic debut novel, which is much more of a work of proper literature than a throwaway end-of-the-world horror story.
Some years after an unknown apocalypse, a young girl named Orpen leaves the only home she has ever known - a remote island off the mainland - in search of help when her sister Maeve is bitten by one of the ‘skrake’. These rotten, feral, cannibalistic creatures now roam the countryside. She carries the infected Maeve with her in a wheelbarrow, and she pins all her hopes on finding other people and the legendary ’Phoenix City’. As Orpen ventures further away from home, the world becomes ever more terrifying and dangerous. As her story unfolds, she recalls her earlier life with her sister and mother and how they taught her the fighting skills she now uses to protect herself against the horrors of a devastated world.
Last Ones Left Alive, despite its relentless darkness and nihilism, somehow rises above its story and themes to become an oddly uplifting experience. Davis-Goff’s writing - Orpen, her narrator, recounts her story in an Irish lilt that rolls off the page - is blunt and economical and yet powerful and punchy. Orpen herself is a new breed of hero, a young woman wary of human contact and yet desperate for it. Her journey through a crumbling world she never knew is haunting and troubling and yet shot through with a strange optimism born out of the resilience of the human spirit and the sense that, whatever catastrophes and crises humankind faces, there is always the capacity to come back stronger, wiser, better. Words to bear in mind at the moment, perhaps.
Orpen’s path eventually crosses with some fellow survivors, and it’s here that the stakes are raised, risks are taken, and in a genuinely-thrilling conclusion, she has to face the full terror of the skrakes. Then, when all seems lost, the book delivers a slightly ambiguous and yet hopeful ending that opens up avenues for any potential sequel (Orpen’s journey is far from over, and there’s much we still don’t know about this grim new world) and yet brings the story to a close in a wholly satisfying manner. Last Ones Left Alive is a tough and uncompromising read with a fiercely feminist perspective, dealing maturely and adroitly with ideas and concepts that could seem trite, exploitative and clichéd in less skilled hands. A hugely impressive and vital novel.