An Irish Zombie Novel
In many genres of storytelling, the protagonists have traditionally been of the white, male variety. Generally speaking, this status quo has balanced out a lot over the past thirty years, with women taking on more roles that were usually the territory of men. To some extent, there’s been a greater amount of racial diversity too, though it’s fair to say there’s more to be done on all fronts. What’s more, Hollywood studios seem to have had a more difficult time matching their commitment to representation with a sincere desire to create narratives from a different perspective. More often than not, audiences are just asked to accept the same old stories with a more progressive shade of paint slapped atop an old one. In part, this is because the studios have been slower to adapt to the changing times behind the camera as they have been with their casts in front. Directors, producers and screenwriters are still predominantly male. That said, I think the world of literature has seen a more interesting turn, with a diverse array of writers exploring their voices in just about every genre you can imagine. It’s in this regard that the book Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff is packaged, a post-apocalyptic zombie story in which a young woman struggles to survive and that one critic on the front cover describes as a fiercely feminist, highly imaginative work.
It’s fitting that Sarah Davis-Goff sets her survival story within the framework of a zombie apocalypse. The genre has its origins in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, a book which I made a video about a while back, but as we know the monsters today, they really found their form in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film from 1968 which famously broke through racial barriers by casting an African American man as its lead. Now, all things being equal this wouldn’t have been a particularly political act, given that the character pretty much just deals with the same issues a white character would have. But because the climate of the real world meant that having an African American man in the part was unheard of, it can be seen as a political choice by the production whether they felt it to be one or not. Similarly, Sarah Davis-Goff’s decision to have a female protagonist in a world continually ruined by men can be seen as implicitly feminist, though I think it’s unfair to limit the novel in these terms because if there’s anything feminist about the events portrayed, it’s only in Goff’s dedication to describing them in a believable manner.
For instance, the young woman doesn’t boast any kind of superpowers akin to that of a superhero or vampire slayer. She has benefited from a high degree of survival and combat training, but she’s hardly backflipping around the place and roundhouse kicking 300-pound men in the face. In point of fact, she’s only about as powerful as her lightweight body enables her to be. In most cases, it’s knowing when to run and hide that allows her to survive, though even at that her common sense is tested time and time again as she has to deal with all the emotional trauma of, you know, living in a world overrun with vicious zombies. Now, I say these things are called zombies, but Goff refers to them as the skrake instead. This can come off as a little bit stubborn at times. Given the enormous amount of market saturation that zombies have experienced in popular culture, it’s funny that the characters in Last Ones Left Alive are more likely to remember an old Irish myth than they are the term for monsters that have overrun just about every form of media in the past few decades. However, if you manage to suspend your sense of disbelief on this front, I think you’ll find that the choice contributes to the authenticity so important to what Sarah David-Goff is trying to do. Yes, in actuality it’s probably less realistic that nobody remembers the word zombie, but in the context of the novel, it allows you to immerse yourself in the plot without the baggage of what other entries in the genre have done in the past.
There are other tropes the book manages to dance around too. The young woman is on a mission to find a compound of survivors, and without giving too much away, the reader is given plenty of reason to question whether it’s a place she’d want to be. That is, if the compound really exists, it’s possible that it’s more of a totalitarian cesspit than it is a paradise for those who’ve managed to get there. The fact that the woman is risking a journey to it anyway is a testament to what hell her life has already been. In this manner, whatever other cliches appear on the horizon are usually dealt with in a way that’s truer to the character’s psychology than it is to the more standard dramatic turns you’d expect from other such tales.
Overall, I’d say that the book has a lot more in common with the likes of The Road by Cormac McCarthy than it does with something like The Walking Dead. Sarah Davis-Goff creates a world where men and the structures of power they help to form can be just as much of a threat as the monsters that overrun the land, but so did McCarthy. The only difference really, is that Goff tells the story of a young woman in such a devastated landscape, while McCarthy told one about a father and son. The critic for the observer described Last Ones Left Alive as fiercely feminist, and they might be right. As with Night of the Living Dead, the real-world conditions that surround the novel’s publication make the basic choice of putting a non-white male in the lead a political act, whether you want it to be or not, but there was absolutely nothing about that choice which that have automatically transformed the novel into something anybody would want to read. Really, what makes the whole thing truly compelling is Goff’s dedication to the fierce reality her young woman confronts as she attempts to survive. If you’ve read the book then let me know what you thought of it in the comments below. And if you haven’t had your fill of zombie talk, then check my video on I am Legend.