23 February 2021

#Review - Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

Cover design by Jo Myler

Last One at the Party
Bethany Clift
Hodder, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 355pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781529332124

I'm grateful to Hodder for an advance e-copy of Last One at the Party via NetGalley to consider for review. I have also bought a hardback copy from Wallingford Bookshop, my usual enablers in these matters.

There is so much in Last One at the Party. It is a brilliant premise, admittedly not original but executed with verve and empathy, creating such a good, readable book.

Our narrator - we never learn her name - is, literally, the least lone at the party. (She points out that this is her won't, she's always the one left behind collecting the lost coats and cleaning up the house). She's the only person to have survived the End of Days - a sudden, distressing and inevitably fatal virus which sweeps the world before any measures can be found to contain it. Set a few years in the future, there are call-backs to the current covid-19 pandemic but 6DM is in a different league.

We're never told why she survived - this isn't a painstakingly researched pandemic book, nor would it be in character for our hero to understand such matters - she tells us herself that she's not very practical and changing a lightbulb is at the limit of what she can manage. When disaster falls, she struggles to deal with her husband's body, and then sets off into London for a several weeks's booze and drug spree, occupying the best hotel rooms she can access and looting Harrods for fancy bags and scarves.

If you are the sort of reader who lusts after the complexities and details of survival post apocalyse - food stocks, medical supplies, firearms, fuel and so on - you will I think probably leave the book there. That isn't what Last One at the Party is about AT ALL. Our protagonist has an almost wilful lack of survival skills and refuses to acquire them now she needs them. She also refuses to carry out what seems like a basic act of mercy, which left me really not liking her much in this part of the story.

What she does have, though, is self-awareness. As she narrates her story, she recalls her earlier life and the layers of expectations it created for her; her ideal parents, with their romantic outlook on life, her girl friend Ginny, who has mentored and mounted here at work; her self-destructive gay best friend Xav; her husband James. It becomes clear that she was in a mess before the pandemic and I even began to suspect that the helplessness we see at the start of the book was as much a mask as any of the other "selves" that she seems to have developed through life. As the book continued I became more and more fascinated and intrigued by this complex, human and constantly developing character. It's almost as if, to be who she really is, she needs to lose everything and everyone. Then she needs to find a way to live with herself - the one successful response to the pandemic has been the distribution of vast stocks of suicide pills, a continual temptation, and the narrator has also managed to source ample supplies of Tramadol.

It is, at least to begin with, a relatively safe, abundant world that she falls into. There is nobody else around to fight for the large stocks of food left behind - everyone died so quickly that shortages didn't develop - and electricity and water continue to operate for some weeks (the main feature of this apocalypse that felt a bit off, I suspect power would be gone in days - though car satnav would probably work for ages, those satellites aren't going anywhere). In a sense that provides a cushion, allowing the narrator to come to terms with her loss (well, not really come to terms, but to begin to). It's understandable, I think, that she goes a bit off the rails, with no immediate need to be practical.

That does change, but the book never gets to full-on "Survivors" mode with the solution of practical problems the overriding driver. There are some sticky moments, dangers, and crises (the ultimate one leading to a situation of great jeopardy which the narrator is able to meet with determination and skill) but the real drama here always arises from the earlier choices the narrator made, and her sometimes brutally honest assessments of them.  We see her happy and fulfilled as a music journalist before a crisis brings that to an end, then, again, happily working for a shipping journal and globetrotting to write up a port or a tanker (she learns at one point to make a fishing net - so, maybe not as impractical as she claims). We see that end, and her changing as she thinks she must to satisfy others - husband, co-workers, her parents. 

Her life seems to get darker, with the eruption of 6DM coming almost as a deliverance. What would you do if you were suddenly alone to enjoy, intact, all the goodies of life? This book certainly made me ponder what I'd do, where I'd go, if freed from the need to worry about the everyday. Making a new world, a new life, must be about more than stockpiling fuel and rigging solar panels, it has to start within oneself. That's the insight that Clift so brilliantly explores in this book and it is so much more interesting than mere practicalities. In fact, it's a cracker of a book and one I'd strongly recommend. (In the end, the empathy and insight of Clift's writing even won me over to sympathise with her protagonist, despite some misgivings at the start - if you find yourself hating her at one point, give it some time, keep going).

For more information about Last One at the Party, see the publisher's website here.

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