The book is at its strongest in its zombie attack set pieces, which are tense with the ugly happenstance of real fights. And while its characterisation isn’t spectacularly profound, there’s a winning everyday-ness in the Orpen-mam-Maeve trio that is still rare in portrayals of same-sex parenting. (In her other life as a publisher at Tramp Press, Davis-Goff is an admirably robust feminist.)
Last Ones Left Alive doesn’t bring much new to its genre. Instead, it puts old elements to its own purpose; and, like the skrake, it runs compellingly enough to an irresistible internal logic of violence.
Davis-Goff took a risk herself, bringing yet another flesh-eating zombie novel into a world heavily saturated with dystopian tomes, TV shows and movies. It is not only the distinctly Irish element, however, but the immense quality of the writing that stands this novel a clear head and shoulders above the rest. It's as much an exploration of inexpressible grief and loss as it is a rocket-paced page-turner, as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament of resilience in impossible circumstances.
Davis-Goff splices chapters from the past and present together, giving momentum to her story. In the past, Maeve is moody and taciturn and a brilliant teacher. In the present, she’s dead – worse than dead, a skrate that Orpen can’t bring herself to part with, a smoking gun she carries about in a wheelbarrow. Scenes that look back on island life and build to the death (and subsequent horrific rebirth as skrate) of Orpen’s mother are well drawn. The author excels at macabre detail, from the wheelbarrow, to the stench of death off the skrates, to the “syrupy black blood” oozing from their wounds. Davis-Goff blends narrow and wide lens writing to good effect... Later Orpen has a moment of realisation that strikes, like all good dystopias, at the heart of modern society: “It’s a problem all on its own, so it is; we’re to be afraid of people, and we need them.” It is a line that sums up the world of Davis-Goff’s debut, where survival skills can only get you so far in an exceedingly hostile world.