Friday 18 October 2019

Last Ones Left Alive: A post-apocalyptic Ireland and a steely heroine

Fiction: Last Ones Left Alive

Sarah Davis-Goff

Tinder Press, hardback, 275 pages, €13.99

Left field: Davis-Goff is one-half of independent publisher Tramp Press
Left field: Davis-Goff is one-half of independent publisher Tramp Press

Hilary A White

In Living with the Living Dead (2017), academic Greg Garrett expounded with bemusing rigour on the swelling utilisation of the zombie apocalypse in popular culture. The Undead, he insisted, were a handy cipher for all sorts of modern-day dreads, from wholesale societal breakdown and environmental ruin, to the unstoppable lurch of taxes and even clogged email inboxes.

But something else that the walking dead can provide an excuse to demonstrate is the very best of what makes us human, particularly the resolve to not only preserve these fundamentals of the human condition, but also to give our lives for those whom we care about the most.

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Self-sacrifice without any chance of reward is arguably the most sacred level of love, and nothing will bring it out quite like hordes of groaning, eye-rolling zombies closing in on one's precious darlings.

As one half of Tramp Press (with co-founder Lisa Coen), Sarah Davis-Goff is more associated with bringing bold, left-of-centre publishing to the bookselling market (occasionally with seismic, paradigm-shifting results), than she is genre fiction. But here we are, with the first instalment from a two-book deal with Tinder Press signed in 2017 that brings the wilted dystopic jaundice of Cormac McCarthy's The Road to post-apocalyptic Ireland. Leading us is a steely heroine who is a direct product of this future nightmare.

Roaming the land and turning kin against kin like some nightmarish civil war is the phenomenon of the "skrake", the infected victims of a disease that is transmitted through a rabid, frenzied bite. What we do know is that most of the country has been wiped out, save for rural "outliers" such as Orpen who have survived off-shore on islands such as Slanbeg.

Orpen is drilled in survival doctrine. A big one is "you're never safe, ever". Maeve, Orpen's guardian and the woman who has trained her body and mind for the threats this new world presents, sits in a wheelbarrow. She has been infected by a skrake and is slowly transforming into the thing she hates the most.

Orpen is determined to get her help before she turns completely because she is the last piece of family left in this world. Her only chance lies over on the east coast and the rumoured outpost known as Phoenix City. A treacherous journey.

Alternating with these chapters are flashbacks of better times on Slanbeg with Maeve and Orpen's mother. Elusive traces of a wider unease slip through as the tone begins to change and Maeve becomes increasingly insistent that Orpen commence a rigorous training regime that includes foraging and combat skills. Less and less room is made for tenderness because it is seen as a luxury of times past.

The two strands - Orpen's origins and present fate - eventually bottleneck effectively as a more complete picture of our young heroine and what she has endured takes hold. The mainland is testing her in a number of ways, forcing her to not only grapple with these monsters but also to question things she has been taught by the hard-line Maeve about how the world works. The zombie apocalypse dehumanises utterly and so the shards of humanity that Orpen discovers springing up through her when faced with her own kind are, naturally, the hinges of the tale.

Davis-Goff has never been one to hide her feminist leanings, and it is therefore unsurprising to find them infusing her debut novel. Orpen has been raised and armed by strong women. Not only have men been superfluous to this survival, but she has actively been taught to fear and evade them for reasons that are not explained. Hungry for written information, she is aware of the pre-diseased world through "approved books, read to death and falling apart and unutterably boring to me now".

"So many versions of the world, and most of them bad. The men making the decisions and women suffering for them." (She later discovers that women in Phoenix City do not learn to read or write because "they have enough to be doing"). Should a screen adaptation be explored (something that feels inevitable), this element won't hurt its chances, you imagine.

Lethally dangerous and nobody's fool, she may be, but Orpen has much to learn, like any tough young-adult fiction protagonist. Between this and the rather abrupt ending, the assumption is that a sequel will provide the illuminating keystone. Standing by itself, however, Last Ones Left Alive is a deft and darkly enigmatic saga that works so well for all the things that it declines to tell us. This economy in Davis-Goff's storytelling belies the whole outing's masterstroke and that is its setting.

So many details connect this terrifying Ireland to the one we recognise, from ghost estates (a gift to thriller writers these days, admittedly) and talk of a latter-day "Emergency" to a pervading stench of death across a landscape that knows all too well the society-wide damage that a calamitous pathogen can bring to rural regions. Where better, it seems, to host a zombie annihilation than an island well-versed on being ravaged.

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