The Last One | Alexandra Oliva | 2016 (14 July) | Michael Joseph | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Sometimes, even when life is nigh on perfect, what one needs is a challenge. A survival reality show might not be everybody’s choice for a final adventurous fling before settling down to have children but for Zoo it’s just what she wants. Not that her real name is Zoo, of course. Zoo is the name picked for her by the TV production company and has something to do with her skill and work with animals. Leaving her loving husband behind for just a few weeks, Zoo joins competitors, show host and camera crews in the American wilderness where they must overcome a series of challenges to win awards – food, shelter.
After a series of group challenges, the competitors are given individual tasks. Zoo finds herself alone for a longer and longer period of time, the food and water are worryingly scarce, the tasks seem increasingly dangerous, the horrifying props and dummies more and more realistic. Once Zoo gets very sick but she recovers, still adamant that she will never say the phrase that would see her liberated from the trial. While she searches for camera drones and cameras hidden in the woods, Zoo has no idea that nobody is watching the show now, nobody is filming it. Disease has come and it has destroyed the world.
I loved the premise of The Last One, combining as it does an apocalyptic tale with the story of a range of characters and personalities, all known by nicknames, competing in a reality game show reminiscent in some ways of Survivor. The novel moves between the present – in which we follow Zoo – and flashbacks during which we are taken through challenges in the show.
There are elements of the novel that I did enjoy, most of which centred on the character of Zoo. We know much more than Zoo about what has been going on and her journey to self-awareness is slow. But when knowledge comes the moment is beautifully captured by Alexandra Oliva. At last, she sees the ruined world around her for what it truly has become and not as a task in a TV show. Her eyes are open.
But I had several issues with the book. The biggest were with the style and structure. Both flashbacks and the present day sections are set in the present tense, which I found rather odd as well as confusing. Also, characters in the flashbacks are known by their nicknames while Zoo, in the present day sections, remembers people by their real names. Matching these proved quite a challenge. Perhaps my biggest problem with the novel was that I couldn’t appreciate the relevance of the flashbacks to the current state of affairs – the events of the TV show seemed to me to no longer have any meaning when set against the context of what is, after all, an apocalypse. They did introduce us to the characters as well as set the scene for Zoo’s last adventure but what really matters is Zoo’s survival – the fight for life in this changed, largely emptied world.
The Last One is a fast-paced, well-written thriller and it has much to commend it – especially the character of Zoo – but there are many apocalyptic thrillers out there at the moment and I don’t think that this one was for me.