The Last of Us | Rob Ewing | 2016 (21 April) | The Borough Press | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
Rona is the eight-year-old daughter of the island postwoman. She attends the local school where she is learning to speak Gaelic among lots of other things. Everyone knows everyone on this Scottish island, particularly Rona’s mother who visits every house to collect letters as well as deliver them. The signs of Christmas are everywhere. The trees have just gone up. But all that was a few weeks ago. It is now early spring. Rona bears the scars of the virus that killed her mother, that killed every adult and most of the children on the island and, for all anybody knows, everyone in the world. But Rona and the other few children have to live in hope, casting their message bottles into the sea, checking the radios daily for more than static, that someday someone will come for them.
Elizabeth is the leader of the small group of children, barely older than Rona and the rest. Elizabeth is a doctor’s daughter with a strong will to care for others, especially little Alex who has diabetes and such little insulin left to inject. Elizabeth writes lots of lists, all meant to help them survive alone without adults. She leads their ‘shopping’ trips, both ‘old’ shopping (in the abandoned shops) and ‘new’ shopping (in the empty houses). These little children know all about the smells of dead bodies, human and animal. They leave flowers by some. They know so much that they shouldn’t have to. They have both the real and the unreal to be frightened of. They’re scared of zombies. They’ve learned to fear flies. In the group are two brothers, struggling to cope with what has happened. Conflict becomes inevitable as their trauma fills the boys with rage. And all the time Rona observes and tells us what is happening, describing the daily struggle, remembering what happened when the world grew afraid and began to empty.
The Last of Us is such an emotionally involving read. Comparisons with Lord of the Flies are inevitable and are being made but I found The Last of Us to be very different. I think it’s misleading to focus on the conflict within the group of children because this is actually quite a small part of the story even if it does have significant consequences. Instead, we have Rona’s brave, honest narration. It’s hard to imagine caring more for a character than I did for Rona. What this poor child has endured and continues to endure… Elizabeth’s character is also striking. This little girl who can’t cry, can’t rage, because she has to be stronger for the even younger ones. The effort that she puts in to helping Alex is touching in the extreme. As for Alex, I cried for him. All of these children are grieving. Yet they also have to deal with the daily horror of death, isolation, hunger, fear.
At times Rona’s mind wanders. She can’t always deal well with what is happening. Rob Ewing has done an incredible job in creating Rona’s voice. The sections in which Rona remembers the last days when the world was normal and the first when it fell apart are wonderful and all the more frightening because this is a child who is only given glimpses of the descending darkness. She only knows what her mother tells her. The world beyond the sea that encloses the island remains mysterious but that sea that separates them is not benign. Nature itself confronts these children. It doesn’t matter how many stray dogs they befriend, at any time there may be that one that they can’t.
The novel is relatively short at just over 300 pages and it left me wanting much, much more, wishing that certain sections could have been developed further. What there is, though, is so well done. The scenery of the island is wonderfully evoked, its stark winter setting working well as a backdrop to the apocalypse. The little pieces of Gaelic scattered throughout are also put to good use. There are times in The Last of Us when I was shocked by what happens. That doesn’t happen often in my reading – moments when I couldn’t believe what I’d just read. The children’s nature gives the novel an air of hope, an optimism, which the rest of the book does its best to destroy. It’s a powerful contrast and it strongly contributes to this moving, memorable novel.