Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

An edited version of this review was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 10 March 2019.

In her role as co-founder of Tramp Press Sarah Davis-Goff has bemoaned the dearth of women writers cited as influences by those who submitted work for publication. She saw it as a wasteful dismissal of “the experiences, viewpoints and brilliant work of women.” Her enjoyable debut novel suffers from no such deficit. A recent New Yorker article by Laura Miller noted how feminist dystopian narratives are now enjoying a boom – encouraged perhaps by the TV adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Miller cites: Future Home of the Living God (breeding controls) by Louise Edrich ; The Water Cure (beleaguered girls on an island) by Sophie Mackintosh; Vox (verbal constraints on women) by Christina Dalcher; and Red Clocks (breeding controls again and the uselessness of men) by Leni Zumas. Davis-Goff may have read none of these works but her novel has certainly tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist as she includes elements of all of them in her very own Irish dystopia. But fear not an earnest feminist polemic, this is a ripping yarn, an entertainment not a tract.

The central character and narrator is Orpen, a young girl, who grew up on Slanbeg, an island on the west coast deserted apart from her mother Muirinn and her taciturn partner Maeve. Her childhood is a pastoral idyll of hens, and gardening and rock pools and “snug as a bug” after a bath. However from an early age this idyll has added martial training. Orpen is brought up to be a warrior by her mother and Maeve  – strong, hard and adept with knives. She is told that “We’re never safe. The only thing we can do is be prepared.” Beyond the island is a semi-deserted wasteland patrolled by hordes of skrake. These are zombie-like creatures who roam our blighted isle and from whom one bite is fatal - it transforms the bitten one into a member of their murderous, albeit mouldering (bits of them tend to fall off) tribe. We don’t know from whence these monsters came but sensitive men may feel there’s an accusatory metaphor lurking in there somewhere. Nor are we told what caused the apocalypse, but two things are clear: it happened in the distant past and men are responsible. Only the crumbling remains of towns and villages remain and trees grow from the middle of the road. “Men are dangerous” we hear and the whole dystopian mess was caused by “the men making the decisions and women suffering for them.” All the characters in the book are female apart from a rather wet male character called Cillian who gets bullied by every woman he encounters. Orpen even thinks about “putting him down” at one stage. However, late in the book the normally stoical Orpen feels a stirring of something else:  “He kisses me. I think about it for the whole rest of my life.” Biology still works.

The action involves a quest by Orpen that takes her from her island fastness. Her immediate concern is a cure for Maeve, stricken by the skrake. However she also hungers for a life beyond her narrow islanded existence, and for the companionship of  a peer group. She sets out on a journey across Ireland to Phoenix City – a dimly-perceived haven based on overheard conversations between Muirinn and Maeve who had to leave there because of Orpen’s birth. “We left because you were pregnant and you weren’t meant to be.” On the road she encounters skrake, a few other lost souls, and eventually finds her peers in the form of a group of banshees. It was only a matter of time before there was a move to rehabilitate the negative stereotypes around banshees. There we were thinking of them as doleful harbingers of death that you’d be better off avoiding. But in Davis-Goff’s novel they have become powerful, liberated women who patrol our ravaged land seeking out and destroying the marauding skrake.

Chapters alternate between the past and the present showing us how Orpen got where she is today.
Davis-Goff captures well the na├»ve, and permanently wary voice of Orpen. Brought up in isolation, her perspective is circumscribed by the world-view of her mother and her partner and glimpses of the old world from carefully hoarded scraps of old books and magazines. We are so far removed from civilization that Orpen’s mother doesn’t even have names for the days of the week – “summer sol” and “winter sol” divide the time. The story focuses on Orpen, her inner life  and her development. The action along the road is mostly confined to bloody jousts with the skrake. The author has a fine grasp of revolting detail and for those who like their Grand Guignol the blood, snot and entrails are piled on with visceral relish.

The conclusion is left so open-ended that you wonder if a sequel is planned, or even a series of novels. I see distinct possibilities for a film or TV series with Orpen as the hero. A kind of Dirty Harriet, or Mad Maxine, for the apocalypse.

Tinder Press
PP: 272
RRP: ??

John P. O’Sullivan
March 2019