My Review of "The Last of Us" by Rob Ewing
It was the cover of this book that caught my attention. The silhouettes, children looking outwards as if searching for something and the simple black and white image implied a stark innocence and a sense of desolation. The blurb then sealed it for me. A pandemic has wiped out the entire population on a remote Scottish Island in the Hebrides. Only five six children remain. This is the story of their survival.
"Being an explorer you get skilled at knowing. I know what a cup of tea left for months looks like......" and the difference between how dogs and cats will try to survive until finally the you learn that "dogs are found at doors, cats at windows."
So opens Ewing's bleak story of survival. Rona, the narrator, explains how to "search" the empty homes scattered across the island village, which houses to avoid, which smells to avoid and what is safe to take from cupboards which "jump with mice".
Elizabeth, the leader, is focussed on a routine. Every day they brush their teeth, they turn the radio dial to try and find a signal, they conserve the batteries in their torches and on the DVD player, they have a "shopping list" for when they go "searching". They play at schools and try to keep up with their learning and they have rules. And lists, lots of lists. This is how they survive in their "war against giving in. Against forgetting. For knowing how to survive." This is how they stay hopeful that one day adults will return and save them.
Elizabeth is resourceful, calm, practical and carries the burden of leader well. She insists on making the children remember the world "before".
"Remembering is all we've got. The past is precious. It has to be correct."
But Rona wants to make a "new ending. Where nobody gets sick, the electricity comes back, like it should have done." Rona finds her memories are disappearing or becoming tainted. She is haunted by the past and by her last memories with her mother. She recounts dreams and flashbacks from before the world changed. She talks to her mum, she asks for her help; her thoughts, memories, day dreams all fusing together in a lyrical and poetic narrative. The repetition of remembering and grasping hold of the past is highly effective and emphasises the desolate and hopeless plight of a group of plucky children trying to survive in a desolate wasteland.
As other critics have also commented, it is reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies". When Calum Ian and Duncan decide to challenge Elizabeth's authority in an enviable turn of events, it prompts a dramatic chain of events which will change the course of their lives on the island.
This is not a depressing read. Yes, the landscape is barren and bleak, yes their situation is desperate and their search for rescue is futile. Yes, there is a plentiful description of death, illness and the rotting away of the "old world". Yes, it triggers a fear in all of us about the potentially real risk of devastating viruses. But the innocence of Rona's narrative, the determination and composure of Elizabeth, her nurture for Alex and her need for establishing some rational control through her lists and rules, creates a more haunting and spell binding atmosphere rather than the horror story it could have easily slipped into becoming. Ewing has achieved something more sophisticated, haunting and thoughtful. His use of dream like reflections and memories is absorbing and effectively used to reveal character and events slowly with tenderness and sensitivity. He captures the children's resignation, hollowness and unavailing search for escape and rescue powerfully. The last section of the book where Rona's desolate narrative begins to spiral as she slips in and out of reality, gradually taken over by loneliness and the solitude of the isolated island is gripping and unforgettable. His use of sentence structure and pace equally effective in evoking atmosphere.
This is a great read which will enthral teenagers who like dystopian novels or stories about an adult free world. It will appeal to readers who liked "Lord of the Flies" and is although it is set in a very real world which could indeed be in any of our near futures, it has the appeal, drama and merit of other novels in this genre like "Hunger Games" and "Divergence".
Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book ahead of publication in April in return for an honest and fair review.
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