‘The Last Woman in the World’ by Inga Simpson

2021, 341 p

It seemed particularly fitting that I should finish reading this book on a weekend when anti-vaxxers, anti-mandate anti-government protesters and so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ should be gathering in Canberra, with a thicket of red Australian flags and placards reflecting their multiple priorities. The Last Woman in the World ends up in a Canberra, ringed by fire, threatened by both right-wing militias and shadow-like creatures that feed on fear, wiping out most of the population and civic society.

Rachel has been living off-grid in the New South Wales bush, working as a glass-blower and in contact with only her sister, Monique, and a local woman, Mia, who brings her food and supplies and ferries Rachel’s glass creations to various markets. Her solitude is shattered by a woman hammering on her door, imploring to be let in with her sick baby. Wary and resentful, Rachel opens the door to Hannah. Hannah tells of screaming people dying suddenly, engulfed by dark shadows that both women refer to as ‘them’, their faces contorted with terror. Death is everywhere, but as Hannah’s baby Isaiah becomes sicker and sicker, both women decide to seek out Rachel’s sister Monique, a G.P. in Canberra. They drive into the smoke-wreathed bush, as bushfires encircle Canberra, only to find corpses everywhere and the lurking presence of ‘them’.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Rachel has suffered from mental illness after a traumatized childhood and a past assault, and it’s not really clear whether ‘they’ are real or hallucinations. The descriptions of driving through fire are evocative and terrifying, but I had the feeling as if they belonged in a book other than this one – perhaps another book that Simpson wants to write one day- particularly when I learned that the writer herself had had to evacuate twice because of fire while writing the book. It marks the advent of novels, sure to continue over the next decades, when the years of pandemic of the early 2020s are background facts. The tension is ratcheted up by not really knowing who is friend or foe, although this is clearer by the end. Those shadowy figures – them– remain ambiguous and other, not ever fully realised or explained. The explanation for why some people seem to be immune to the influence of them strains credulity a bit and the ending was perhaps a bit too neat for my liking.

However, it was good to read a pursuit story like this where the protagonists were women. While disturbing, it is not as nihilistic as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and I’m glad that it’s not), and I enjoyed reading Canberra as a familiar, if eerily quiet, setting. But I’m still bemused by the title, which is not even accurate. Or did I miss something?

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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