The extraordinary, bleak Irish novel Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff is one of a few pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read of late. Perhaps it’s the long winter nights, Brexit or impending environmental doom, but for some reason the genre feels especially cogent and biting these days.
And there is a relatability in Last Ones Left Alive that makes it stand out from others in that genre. Yes it walks very much in the tone and mood of books like Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel The Road, but LOLA (if I may) stands out in its own right not only because it is a superb read but because it is set not in the USA, as so much in that genre is, but in Ireland, a small country not so far from us here in Scotland and not all that different.
From the outset, it is refreshing to read a story about the end of civilisation that don’t involve big American cities collapsing, nuclear wars, killer robots or anything else from the vast cupboard of science fiction cliches. Instead, this tale locks the reader in the intimate, immediate world of the abandoned west of Ireland.
LOLA (I know, but I can’t be bothered repeatedly typing the full name) is a story of survival, determination and hope told by its narrator, Orpen, a young Irish woman left to face the worst that a post-viral hellscape can offer – a scarcity of food, overgrown ruins, and zombie-like creatures, skrake, who hunt those few humans who seem to remain.
The narrative flits smoothly between two timelines. One is Orpen’s upbringing, in what seems to be some years after the fall of society, in the claustrophobic safety of the fictitious island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland. She lives with her mother and older sister, who train her harshly in the key skills of survival – including combat – while resisting letting her join their occasional boat trips to the dangerous, skrake-infested mainland.
The other timeline follows Orpen’s lonely exploration of that mainland, after a time when (mild spoilers) she has grown up but lost much of that protection that her family strived to give her.
Both timelines are grim reading. Orpen faces battles both on the island as a child and on the mainland as a woman: the struggle for food, survival and other basic needs, but also a struggle for a sense of self, identity and purpose in a world she doesn’t really understand and cannot control.
And that world is superbly portrayed. With tension, brutality and emotion, the landscape, the ruins, and the shattered aspirations of humanity are all vividly brought to the page, in a style that is not a million miles away from Seamus Heaney’s evocations of the visceral link between people and landscape:
I stop and look around us again. Mostly the land is like on Slanbeg: green and brown and flat, cowering underneath the sky above it.
There’s nothing for it now but what I can do with my feet and hands and head and heart.
Throughout this, the author seems keen to hold a mirror up to the reader – as if saying this apocalypse was our fault (though, as I will mention later, it’s more specific than that). At one point, as Orpen navigates the still-strange new world of the mainland, the author writes:
We’re surrounded now by the remains of buildings, slouching and fallen on top of each other, utterly ending whatever was underneath them. I work our way forwards slowly, eyeing toppling spires and leaning walls. The buildings are so tall I’ve to let my head roll all the way back to look up and when I do, something pops gently in my neck. There’s nothing like this on the island. Whoever lived here built higher and maybe fell farther.
And fall civilisation certainly has done, with abandoned housing estates featuring strongly and standing (or not) as metaphors for the collapse of humanity. There’s a double meaning in Davis-Goff’s regular use of the phrase “ghost estate” or “ghost village” – referring both to the long-crumbled settlements within the book but also alluding to Ireland’s numerous housing projects that were abandoned during the economic crash of the previous decade. It’s almost like the author is asking us to reflect on just how thin the line is between the late capitalist decline of our modern world and the devastation of Orpen’s existence. Are we really so immune from the decay she is facing?
Amid the doom and gloom, Davis-Goff’s language haunts and soars. Her ability to explore the landscape of the country, the mind and actions of Orpen and the slowly-revealed events of the story are superb. Rich in Irish idioms that add another relatability and familiarity to the story, her portrayals of a world torn apart are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. For instance on her mainland journey Orpen sees that:
The countryside, Ireland, is laid out before me: forest pushing in against the hills, tracks of small roads, now paths, weaving between it like rivulets of water on the beach at home. Little towns are nearly consumed back into earth with trees and vines delicately dismantling the stone works of the buildings. To the east the sky is beginning to lighten and I can make out the city proper beginning.
As our hero finds her place in the world and realises her talents and strengths, she also discovers how she relates to others, and here (no spoilers) her gender plays a key role in defining her thoughts and actions and indeed the wider story. The author challenges us to reflect on how men – and men specifically – are at fault for the state of the world, and Orpen’s instruction from her mother and sister hint at this with no little subtlety:
‘Being able to control ourselves,’ [her mother] says, ‘is the essential difference between us, and the skrake, and between us and men.’
And elsewhere, in a rare encounter with a stranger:
Nothing for a long time, and then a shout back, and it’s a sound I have not heard before, but I know immediately what it is.
‘Hello!’ It’s a man’s voice.
I turn and run.
Then soon after:
‘We can’t go that direction,’ the man says, and there’s something in the way he says it that is meant to sound like a decision has been made already and that’s that. It makes my fingers curl in anger.
As a male reader, part of me wants to challenge the author’s bluntness on gender – it might be tempting for some to react with a protest of “not all men” and to write LOLA off as grumpy feminist fiction with a similarly grumpy intended audience. But through Orpen, the author challenges me to consider just how bad things have become that the reputation, even the mere voice, of men can instil such caution in her. What have they done to the world of Orpen that this is the case? Is it so different from what men have done to the world of the here and now?
And this is where the book does what science fiction can do at its best: it takes us through a scenario and landscape that is both alien and familiar, to make a point about humanity and the world that is relevant to us now.
Across so many facets of this world, from the banking crisis to the wars we fight, men are front and centre. Davis-Goff, through her powerful book and compelling lead character, asks us whether it is really so hard to imagine that the collapse of civilisation, whether environmental, technological or military in cause, might have at its core the decisions of the men who control the levers of power.
I’d love to imagine the author has more to say on this topic. After all, there’s a suspenseful ending to LOLA that suggests that Orpen’s story will have plenty more for her, and for us, to discover. And if anything else Davis-Goff writes contains the gripping, raw power of Last Ones Left Alive, then it will be worthy and urgent reading.