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The Last One
by Alexandra Oliva
Ballantine, $16.00, 304pp
Published: August 2017

Here's a book that feels like it was written to be adapted. I kind of liked it and certainly appreciated its core ideas, but I kind of didn't like it, too. While reading it, I kept turning pages because I wanted to be let in on more of what was going on with the characters, but, writing it up three weeks later, I find I'd never really found out what I wanted and I had to think hard to remember how it all wrapped up. The point is always the journey, never the destination.

The core idea is pretty cool. What if a reality TV show trains a dozen contestants in survival skills and sends them out into the woods to see if they can thrive on their own? What if that reality show works a little sadistically by deliberately subverting expectations so that characters don't really know what they're supposed to do at any point until the next clue shows up? And what if reality joins the fray by unleashing a deadly pandemic that wipes out contestants, crew and the majority of the world beyond the boundaries of the "set"?

Most crucially of all, what if that pandemic causes the show's support structure to fail utterly, leaving one contestant cast fully adrift and stuck believing that she's in a show long after that show has gone the way of the dodo.

The show is called The Woods and its characters are given generic names by the production: Waitress, Tracker, Carpenter Chick and the like. The initial scenes within the show are annoying in the same way that reality shows are annoying. Maybe some readers will appreciate their glimpse behind the curtain at how such a show is put together. For those of us who already know well that reality shows have very little to do with reality and almost everything we see is scripted drama, they're a little tedious.

At this point, the author alternates between those scenes and others of our lead character, Zoo, as she continues to play a game that no longer exists. I tolerated the former, because I wasn't interested too much in the mechanisms of the show and found most of the people involved as annoying as I would if I was actually watching it on television. Sure, there are many reasons for them to be involved and it's fair game to explore those; but I found that I really didn't care.

However, I was absorbed by the latter because there's a fascinating psychology in play. The mechanism of the game says that any contestant can quit at any time, simply by reciting a particular phrase. They are always on camera, so whenever they're ready, that's all it takes. Cheerleader Boy does it quickly, as he's clearly out of his depth and rapidly turning into a televised joke. Others follow. However, Zoo has no intention of doing that - partly because she's stubborn and doesn't want to lose, partly because she wants to win for her and her husband before they start a famil, and partly because she assumes that the game is still on; because if she was the only one left, it would stop and they'd tell her.

Watching Zoo rationalise what she sees in terms of the game even when it clearly isn't is fascinating. When she's attacked by a rabid coyote, it must be animatronic. When she encounters rotting corpses, they must be special effects. When she comes across the first live human being she's seen in weeks, he must be a plant there to test her, probably her new cameraman. This gets extreme and it gets scary. At one point, she encounters the dead body of a new mother with a live baby and she leaves it alone as it doesn't seem to be a clue. We know what she doesn't and that means we know that scenes like that are going to traumatise her something rotten when she finally understands the truth of her situation.

And that traumatises us in advance. This is a novel that transcends genre. I have two copies of it, one of them marketed as science fiction and the other as general fiction. It's both, in certain ways, but it's psychological horror more than it's anything else, because we know where it has to end. For all that I rejected most of the reality show logic, I liked Zoo and felt invested in her survival. Because I knew it was never going to end well, that she'll be robbed of her victory, that her husband was probably dead, that her eventual realisation of the reality, ha, of her situation is going to be a sledgehammer blow, I felt for her.

And, I think that's both the biggest achievement of this novel and its biggest problem. Once I'd found my way into the book, everything was about that eventual moment when Zoo learns the truth. I cared about that but not really about the show, about her ongoing adventures or even about her. I just had to know that she would survive, which means that I was reading in the way that a viewer of The Woods was watching. That's a neat trick to pull but it isn't one I was particularly happy about.

'The Last One' was first published in 2016, when the focus would have been on the reality show angle. I read it in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which isn't remotely as deadly as the one that ravages the world in this novel but has still changed everyone's lives. Anyone reading now will have a focus on the pandemic rather than the show and the book reads very differently. We start to think about those people who spent 2020 in a coma and woke up to ask, "Hey, what did I miss?"

There are a lot of questions that come out of this book. It would be a fantastic choice for a book club, where different participants would raise different perspectives. This is about trust in the media, the ethics of reality television, the fundamental importance of communication, the will to succeed at all costs, the way we rationalise events to fit into our personal narrative. There's a heck of a lot here and it all means that I admire and appreciate what Alexandra Oliva achieved with 'The Last One', merely a lot more than I ended up enjoying the book. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Alexandra Oliva click here

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