Sunday 21 April 2019

One young woman's tale of survival in savage post-apocalyptic Ireland

Fiction: Last Ones Left Alive

Sarah Davis-Goff

Tinder Press €15.99

Last Ones Left
Last Ones Left

Anne Cunningham

Reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1977 left its mark on me. I was barely in my teens and figured it could all still happen, there was time enough. And although Big Brother didn't arrive in 1984, it is cold comfort to remember that he was only biding his time, busy changing his image, going all friendly and sparkly and rebranding himself, not as a moronic reality TV programme, but as the mind-bleeding, personal-information-sucking monster we all know and love called Social Media. Orwell taught me that when it comes to dystopian fiction - the good stuff, at any rate - it's all only a matter of time.

More recent 'good stuff', like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and 30 years later Louise O'Neill's Only Ever Yours, were based on the subjugation of women. And while Last Ones Left Alive avoids this particular well-trodden path to some extent, there's still a sense of unease here about what men may have done to women. We're not told why Ireland has been laid waste, but it's hinted that men are the problem, or at least that they've created the problem. The real problem now is the 'skrake', a plague of zombie-like creatures that prey on the last ones left alive.

The protagonist Orpen (named after painter William Orpen), in her late teens now, has been reared on a westerly island by her mother and Maeve. They have been completely self-sufficient and have only sailed to the mainland when absolutely necessary. From an early age Orpen has been taught survival and self-defence skills, living under the ever present threat of the skrake. Her mother is eventually bitten and dies. Later, when Maeve is bitten, Orpen has no choice but to take her to the mainland in search of help and other unbitten human beings. She has heard about Phoenix City (Phoenix Park?) on the east coast, where survivors have managed to congregate and this is where she's headed, wheeling a dying and dangerous Maeve in a wheelbarrow, along with a cage of chickens, and accompanied by her dog, Danger. In a deserted Midlands town she encounters a man, a pregnant woman and a young girl. But she doesn't know if they can be trusted…

Sarah Davis-Goff is one half of the two-woman powerhouse that is Tramp Press, the independent Irish publisher which introduced us to phenomenal authors like Mike McCormack (Solar Bones), Sara Baume (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither) and Emilie Pine (Notes to Self). Tramp Press also launched their 'Recovered Voices' series three years ago, a project to republish old novels by deserving Irish authors who might otherwise have been forgotten, like Dorothy Macardle. They've taken brave risks, almost all of which have been successful.

Indeed, Davis-Goff took a risk herself, bringing yet another flesh-eating zombie novel into a world heavily saturated with dystopian tomes, TV shows and movies. It is not only the distinctly Irish element, however, but the immense quality of the writing that stands this novel a clear head and shoulders above the rest. It's as much an exploration of inexpressible grief and loss as it is a rocket-paced page-turner, as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament of resilience in impossible circumstances. And it left me feeling almost as queasy as Orwell did.

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