The Last of us, Rob Ewing
Harper Collins, 2016
Review by Ryan Vance
In this golden age of the end of the world, if apocalypse wants to catch humanity off guard it’ll have to get creative. As our increasingly fatalistic pop culture demonstrates with aplomb, there are rules to survival, and we’re our own best teachers. But after, when school’s out forever, what if the rule-makers have become casualties?
This uneasy hinterland is the backdrop for Rob Ewing’s tale of endurance, set on a remote, unnamed Scottish island in which a gory global pandemic has killed all residents save a few youngsters. The cast comes together quickly: sensible, mumsy Elizabeth, from an English family of doctors; burgeoning pyromaniac Calum Ian; his sensitive brother Duncan; over-imaginative diabetic, Alex; and Rona, our serious eight-year-old narrator, daughter of the island’s one postie. Together they’re figuring out how to survive in this new and empty environment, how to contact the outside world, and if there’s even an outside world left worth contacting. The kids flip between determined self-sufficiency and sticking to their old routines, as if playing an eerie version of house in which every cupboard hides a skeleton, most with flesh still on them, turning black.
While escalating squabbles provide the thrust of the story, the dark charm of The Last of Us comes from the tension between the horror of the crisis, and a narration by necessity plain and child-like. All these children have grown up too fast, each warped in ways that, thrown together, derail their chances of survival. Alongside the physical isolation of the island, there are more existential worries: the children fear should help ever come for them, they’ll have been alone for so long they’ll not be able to communicate with their rescuers. Taken with the Gaelic phrases dotted throughout the book, it hints at a deeper psychological isolation that might have existed before the pandemic – and the black dog underbelly of island life. This is not to say the book is without faults. At first Ewing appears to waste no time, dropping in on Rona having lost count of the days, talking to the memory of her mother, obliquely referencing a few past events that already feel momentous. In truth, though, the story is mostly told via flashback, with chapter titles alternately counting up to and away from one final disaster. While this foreshadowing contributes a hopeless inevitability to the telling, it also robs The Last of Us of some devastating surprises.
To Ewing’s credit, even with this information you never quite figure out where the tale is headed, but the journey there sometimes feels like checking items off one of Elizabeth’s scavenging lists. If you like your post-apocalypse to be a bumpy free-fall rather than a rueful look back up at the precipice, skip the first chapter entirely – a little cheeky, perhaps, given how gracefully Ewing handles the tricky structural commitments of a long flashback, but it will likelier make for a more energetic read.
More interesting, from an adult perspective, are the further flashbacks to the world as it began to collapse, hinting at a much darker story of how Rona’s community behaved right at the very end of its days. Here, Ewing really opens up the book’s big questions: In a crisis, is bending the rules compassionate or reckless? Who makes those rules, and what informs them? If the rules aren’t working, what’s stopping you making your own? And what would it mean to step outside the rules completely? These are by no means new challenges to the genre, but there’s a sickly fascination in how Ewing handles them, approached via a narrator only just starting to learn the nuances of society when the entire idea of society fell apart.
In short, it’s exactly what you want from a post-apocalypse tale of survival: a grim read that doesn’t flinch from its own darkness for the sake of giving the reader an easy ride, and what it lacks in drive it makes up for by committing to its premise, in which that familiar fear mongering pre-cataclysm cry of “Won’t someone please think of the children!” becomes a grim reality, after the fear has been well and truly mongered.