Opening sentence: “My toenail has blackened and I’ve to pull to get it off.”
We are thrown straight into the action in this dystopian read: Ireland is now a barren, desolate place where any humans still alive spend their time protecting themselves against skrake – zombie-like creatures that roam the country – and trying to gather enough food, water and shelter for basic survival: This is the only way of life there is now. Last Ones Left Alive is narrated by 13-year-old Orpen (named after the Irish painter, William Orpen) and we meet her as she’s taking a difficult and dangerous journey across mainland Ireland, having left the isolated (and skrake-free) island she grew up on. She’s trying to find Phoenix City, a place – she hopes – where there will be other people who can help her and help Maeve, who has been bitten by a skrake…
The chapters alternate between Orpen’s present situation and her past. As well as following her perilous journey, we learn that her mother and Maeve moved to an island off the west coast of Ireland when Orpen’s mother was pregnant with her. On Slanbeg, (the island) Orpen was born and had a fairly idyllic childhood – given the circumstances – until, age seven, her training for survival began, spearheaded by Maeve,“Mam taught me about how to live, so she did, but Maeve taught me about how to survive.” Orpen was raised knowing that skrake were her enemy, but not why they exist. Maeve and Orpen’s mother are from a time before skrake so tried to shelter her and didn’t fill her in on what actually happened.
My first instinct when I finished reading was, ‘well, I still have lots of questions about the plot that this book didn’t answer’ and usually that would be a negative for me, but after thinking about it, I realised I was focusing on the wrong thing. Sure, we are never told how a zombie (skrake) apocalypse took over Ireland, nor are we given a detailed history of any of the characters. We literally only know what Orpen knows, so as a point-of-view narrative, it’s brilliant. Just like Orpen, we are in the dark about the dystopian world she finds herself born into. This leads both Orpen and us – the readers – to constantly question things, be confused, fearful and have to fight hard against the feelings of desolation. All this combines to create a powerfully evocative story that truly puts you in the mind of the lead character. And what a character she is: “Anger’s more useful than sadness or fear. I hold it tight to me: I shape it into plans.” Her training has given her resilience and physical strength, but it’s her determination, personal growth and sense of moral justice that make her so endearing.
Last Ones Left Alive was a very different read for me (anything vaguely zombie-themed is not a book I would have necessarily picked off the shelf) but I’m so glad it came my way. Dystopian stories seem to be everywhere right now (I watched Bird Box while reading this, so my sense of impending doom really piqued the other night!) probably triggered by the fact that real world events seem to be on a slippery dystopian slope. This makes characters like Orpen even more powerful: Yes, sometimes the world crumbles around you, out of your control, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up hope or lose your focus.
It’s a truly impressive debut from Irish author Sarah Davis-Goff; she took such a well-known theme and gave it a fresh, visceral and – most importantly – human spin, so that days later I’m still thinking about Orpen.
Published by Tinder Press March 2019 / 288 pages / I was kindly sent this book in exchange for an honest review.