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The Last One
by Alexandra Oliva
Ballantine Books; 294pp; $16
Published: August 2017

This is a terrific, compelling apocalyptic tale.

Oliva has crafted a novel based on the idea that a set of contestants are put out in the woods somewhere in the Northeast. It’s a wilderness “Survivor” show called “In the Dark.” Their website calls it a “Reality experience of unprecedented scale.” There are twelve participants. They are given some items to help; they deal with Challenges set by a host that then meets them at the end of their timed tasks. They are handed clues and maps and teams are juggled as things become harder and people are eliminated.

None of the contestants have names. They are all identified by skills/jobs/ethnicity: Ranger, Tracker, Carpenter Chick, Waitress, Air Force, Asian Chick, Black Doctor, Exorcist…and finally, Zoo a woman who worked at a wildlife sanctuary.

We get to know the characters pretty well, what their motivations are, their fears and their frequent thoughts about the other contestants. Some of them you root for others you can’t wait to have eliminated. Just as you would were you watching this at home.

Though we do follow the teams and individuals throughout the book as they go through their challenges tracked by a phalanx of cameramen and drones…the story focuses in on Zoo.

She is a wonderful character: smart, terrified, dogged.

The time of year is early autumn so there is some heat and cold and a little rain---but the weather is not extreme.

The contestants are all adults and even though there is plenty of attitude; we are spared teen-aged angst. This really gives a level tone to the novel and because of the lack of hysteria---for me, it was more griping.

Of course there IS drama: but it is well-handled and convincing.

And when the apocalypse happens---none of these folks know.

They are cut off from civilization by the parameters of the show and the eventual lack of visible cameramen is just attributed to deviousness on the part of the producers.

Finally, the teams splinter apart and Zoo is on her own. The book moves back and forth between her dealings with the show and other contestants, to her wandering the woods alone with some vague clues about reaching home.

She has no idea that a rapidly spreading pathogen has killed off half the world’s population—a third of the U.S.

Zoo’s journey is riveting: not only her outside travels, but her inner doubts and wishes to see her husband again. She took up the challenge of this TV reality show as a last adventure before settling down and having a family.

As she grimly marches on, we are absorbed by how she deals with the lack of things and, her ingenuity. Her overwhelming suspicion is completely understandable when she finally meets some other humans: two brothers, who she thinks are actors just doing their bit to make her journey tougher and give some titillation to the viewing audience.

Zoo also meets a frightened, lonely 13-year-old black boy who has survived the plague—the only one of hundreds who’d evacuated to their neighborhood church. His name is Brennan. She, reluctant and mistrustful at first, allows the child to travel with her.

It takes her a LONG time to accept he is a real survivor and not just another trial created by the show.

The two of them have a believable dynamic.  Zoo doesn’t want to tell Brennan her real name or much about herself because she is certain at the outset he is just another actor. She remains mostly tight-lipped as they travel. Her resentment builds about what she sees as elaborate, expensively staged scenarios the two of them come across—all the odiferous dead bodies, a crashed school bus, abandoned towns, a new mother and baby dead in the ruins of a baby shower…

The end is great. To avoid spoilers I’ll just say we do learn a bit more about the actual survivors and a tiny bit more about the plague.

And we get resolution for Zoo and Brennan.

Oliva’s writing is straight forward, a bit on the dry side, which I appreciated because we’re dealing with such terrible, horrendous material. I like her focus on the inner struggles of Zoo and her outward responses to an increasingly puzzling world.

I really recommend this. It would make a great film. ~~ Sue Martin

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