Review: THE LAST ONE by Alexandra Oliva (Ballantine/Penguin)

OlivaA-TheLastOneUSReality TV collides with catastrophic reality…

She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.

It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens — but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it man-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them — a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo — stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.

Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life — and husband — she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills — and learn new ones as she goes.

But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways — and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

This novel has a very interesting concept: what happens when the filming of a Survivor-type reality show coincides with an actual apocalypse? In The Last One, we follow a contestant for an expansive reality TV series as she navigates a post-apocalyptic American wilderness. Only, she thinks it’s all part of the game…

“It’s all just part of the game. As long as I keep that in mind, I’ll be fine, no matter how twisted things get.”

Only, this is really not the case. The story unfolds across two paths — the first follows Zoo as she muddles through a specific part of post-apocalyptic America, without recognizing that the apocalypse (a biological plague of some kind) has cleared the region. She sees the absence of others as huge investment by the networks, and incredible attention to detail, trying to make the game as difficult as humanly possible for the contestants. She’s wounded just before the novel starts, so she’s delirious, malnourished and becoming just a little unhinged (in a rather calm way). She has convinced herself that there is nothing wrong — it’s just a really, really difficult game show. Her faith in the no-longer-present crew gives her a strange confidence that allows her to overcome whatever is thrown at her. Eventually, though, she does realize that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong… It’s pretty well done, but comes far later than it probably would in real life.

OlivaA-TheLastOneUKThe other story thread is presented in a series of flashbacks to earlier portions of the show’s filming, jumping back-and-forth seemingly at random. We get to know the other contestants a little bit — the uber-focused Tracker, the exorcist, the vacuous beauty, and so forth. They were all strategically hired by the production crew to maximize the chances for (melo)drama and conflict on the show. This part of the story was fine, well-observed and written, but ultimately not at all surprising: after all, it is a commentary on the formulaic and contrived nature of “reality” shows. Not to mention the desire of producers to make them ever-more difficult and drama-infused. Each character has a nickname bestowed upon them by the production crew, and this gives us an idea of who they are, and what they’re like, but ultimately I don’t feel like I got to know them particularly well. So, I didn’t become invested in their fates. In fact, I frequently just wanted to get back to the ‘present’ story. That being said, at the beginning, there were some shrewd observations about TV, celebrity culture and also the nature of “reality” TV.

The novel is well-written: Alexandra Oliva has a good way with words, and individually there were many great scenes. For example, those with Brennan and at the market later in the novel, as well as the rather dour and depressing, almost heart-breaking ending (see earlier, though, re: difficulty connecting with characters). That being said, as a whole, the novel felt a little meandering. The balance between the flashbacks and present felt a little off, with certain scenes providing little extra to the story’s momentum or context. The story never took off for me.

In many ways, it reminded me of Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon (which I liked very little), but The Last One had a bit more focus and attention paid to story. The atmosphere, though, was somewhat similar. So, I suppose, if you enjoyed Black Moon, then you may well enjoy The Last One more than I did. Maybe also if you enjoyed Adrian Barnes’s Nod, which I liked about the same amount as I did Oliva’s novel (I really appreciated Nod‘s brevity).

Ultimately, The Last One didn’t quite deliver. It was well-written, and started strongly, but the more I read the less enthusiastic and invested I became. It meandered a bit more than I would have liked, and eventually just ended without much of a resolution. And yes, I know that the lack of satisfying resolution was probably intentional — after all, if a catastrophe like the one in the novel were to happen, the vast majority of people would not experience the neat, happy ending we would like. But… I don’t know. It just didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked.

An excellent premise, quite well constructed, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver on its promise.


The Last One is out now, published in North America by Ballantine Books, and in the UK by Penguin.

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