‘Last Ones Left Alive’ pairs zombies and feminism
In her debut novel, “Last Ones Left Alive,” Sarah Davis-Goff boldly takes on a genre that can go wrong in so many ways: the zombie-thriller novel. The main monster has to be scary while also being believable, there have to be defined rules to the world without over-explanation, the characters have to undergo some sort of growth without being swallowed by the drama of the zombie (no pun intended).
Davis-Goff manages to sidestep these pitfalls and creates a feminist, environmentally-concious, survivalist coming-of-age story. It follows 15-year-old Orpen as she embarks on a journey to leave her island, the only place she has ever known, after the death of her mother (“Mam”) and her mother’s partner, Maeve. She lives in a post-apocalyptic Ireland, decimated by a mysterious event called “the Emergency” that turns those who are bit into “skrakes,” the zombie-like principal monsters of the book. Maeve and Mam are the only people Orpen has ever met before leaving the island, and Maeve has just one rule regarding others: “Beware people.” Maeve and Mam train Orpen rigorously in the hope that she will one day be able to leave the island with them, but a skrake bites her mother and two years later, another bites Maeve. This propels Orpen to finally venture off the island in search of a rumored all-female fighting force called the “banshees” and their home, Phoenix City.
Without ever describing the cataclysmic event that led to the destruction of society as we know it, the novel still does an excellent job building a believable post-apocalyptic world in which the vestiges of civilized society, like skyscrapers and signposts, have all half-disintegrated and left room for nature to come back in full force. Davis-Goff spends precisely enough time describing Orpen’s lush surroundings; her writing is beautiful and descriptive without feeling unnecessary or drawn-out. The environment always seems to subtly reflect Orpen’s inner state — after a brush with death, she describes the landscape by saying, “the green of the grass is particularly violent-looking against the darkening clouds.” There is harmony and dissonance in the way people interact with their environment in this novel, a distinction made between taking from the land and living with it. Orpen repeatedly expresses her awe and confusion at the technological marvels of the world she never knew, wondering, for example, why gas was pumped to the island to power the heating when it would be much easier to just build a fire outside. Orpen has a certain environmental innocence, and Davis-Goff uses this to make a subtle point about our sometimes over-complicated technological problem-solving.
The only living connections to this past are Orpen’s mother and Maeve, and they are also Orpen’s only example of romantic love. The deftness of Davis-Goff’s portrayal of a same-sex couple comes from her ability to not over-explain. She never feels the need to hit the reader over the head with the fact that the main romantic relationship portrayed in the novel is a lesbian one. Instead, she allows this fact to be unquestioned and almost uninteresting — in a world infested with zombies, there’s no time to ponder the existence of a same-sex couple. Orpen has never known anything else, she never questions it, and because it does not concern Orpen, it does not concern us as readers. Davis-Goff makes it clear that there is real love between Mam and Maeve, and that this love existed before Orpen was even alive.
The other and decidedly less well-developed romantic coupling in the book is between Orpen and Cillian, a man she meets on the road to Phoenix City. Before she meets Cillian, she has never met a man before, and in fact Mam and Maeve posit men as a threat equal to the skrake in the real world. Orpen is consistently told that the world before “the Emergency” was characterized by “men making the decisions and women suffering from them” — her main takeaway from Mam and Maeve’s teachings is that “men are dangerous.” Consequently, she is terrified and aggressive upon her initial meeting with Cillian. But over the remainder of the book, she ends up developing feelings for him. This romance, in contrast to Mam and Maeve’s gentle and sure companionship, feels gratuitous. Orpen spends her whole life conditioned to believe that men are the source of all evil, and when she finally meets a man, the only way that she can overcome this ingrained assumption is to fall in love. For its first half, the novel seems to finally build a dystopian plot with a young female protagonist who manages not to have a romantic side-plot. With this hope in mind, Orpen’s romance with Cillian is a disappointment. With so few characters, Cillian is the only male character in the book, and the lesson Orpen learns from him is essentially that, “men aren’t that awful after all.” This message is not problematic in itself, but the fact that Orpen can only seem to reach it by falling in love is. Their romance cheapens the stronger bonds presented in the novel, and undercuts Davis-Goff’s point that within the patriarchy there are still decent men.
Despite the pothole of Orpen and Cillian’s relationship, this novel’s road to being a well-crafted feminist novel is relatively clear. Davis-Goff has a basic feminist principle anchoring the book: Two strong women raise Orpen, another strong woman, who survives using her own skills and wits. Amid the many themes with which this novel grapples, at its core it is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl who must venture out into an unforgiving world alone. Strip away the zombies and the crumbling civilization and Orpen is simply a girl teetering at the point between child and adult being thrust into maturity in a world she does not yet understand.