- Last One at the Party, by Bethany Clift. Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99.
Since 1826, when Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man, many novels have dealt with the destruction of the human race due to illness, war or Martians. Last One at the Party stands in this tradition, at a time when many of us have realised just how much effect a virus can have.
The first-person narrator of the novel may be the last individual left alive in England, if not the world, in late 2023. A virus called 6DM is responsible for the catastrophe. 6DM stands for Six Days Maximum, which is as long as victims live. The unaffected survivor, a woman in her 30s, has never been particularly independent, allowing herself to be shaped by others' ideas of what she should be.
Her previous life is revealed in the diary she writes, charting her drifting into music journalism, work for a shipping publication, and finally into business. She suffers from panic attacks and depression, and leans on parents, friends and her husband for direction.
If this sounds very grim, Last One at the Party is written in a jaunty, surprisingly amusing tone. Sometimes the prose even seems banal; "For the first time in my life I felt like a proper woman, and it was fun. Dressing up and doing my hair and make-up was fun, and being acknowledged for dressing up and doing my hair and make-up was fun." These are, however, diary entries written by the surviving woman for herself. (Although she does note that she's unsure if she's writing a diary or a journal, and feels that she should record her experiences, it's unlikely that anyone else will, or could, read her words.)
The protagonist battles addiction, loneliness and the inability to rely on electricity or fresh food. Relationships with animals change; seagulls and rats realise that human beings are no longer a threat. At least one dog, however, continues to display love, loyalty and greed.
The last part of the novel (and one earlier page) are quite different in presentation, and answer a major question that has been raised throughout. We are not made aware of the final fate of the diarist, although there has been a significant change in her status. I don't want to reveal that moving development, but in many ways it confronts the survivor with the greatest challenge of all.
Last One at the Party shows how a damaged woman confronts an impossible situation. The narrative is strong enough to carry the reader along, through frustration at the protagonist's choices. It does make us question whether we'd do any better, in her situation. While the scenario is familiar, the tone and far-from-heroic central character give Clift's novel interesting points of difference.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.