Book review: Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

As a species, we love our all-conquering heroes.

Perhaps because we feel insufficiently equipped to deal with life in its mundanity but most especially in its more extraordinary moments, we cling as tightly as we can to people who know all, can do all and rather happily for a world where actions are often flawed and incomplete, overcome all.

It all makes sense, particularly in apocalyptic tales where the ordinary won’t cut it and the extraordinary is usually what’s required, but as Bethany Clift explores in her affectingly original tale of one woman alone at the end of the world, Last One at the Party, the unsettling reality is that everything might end, likely when we’re least prepared for it (which is, be honest, all the time) and all we will have is ourselves.

Broken, sad, happy, uncertain, selfish, excitable, hopeful, depressive us with no one to come riding to our rescue.

What would do then and how would we cope? Would we rise to the occasion, summon hidden reserves within ourselves and kick the apocalypse’s death-laden butt, or would like, as the unnamed protagonist, fumble and flail and stumble our way to some accommodation with the freakishly unnerving fact that we seem to be the last person alive as history’s reaches a pandemic-initiated end?

“Films and TV shows about the end of the world always show people taking to the street en masse; rioting, looting, fleeing, rallying against the fall of mankind — much like what had happened in America.

That is not what happened here.

There had been no mass exodus from London, no nose-to-tail traffic jam blocking the streets, no gridlocked car park on the M25. Nobody tried to flee — where would they have gone? They had tried that in America. It hadn’t worked.

6DM was everywhere, you couldn’t escape it.” (P. 27)

Be honest – we would likely react as the female protagonist does, a London-based woman who has been unsuccessful and successful, depending on her point in life, in work and love, who moves between feeling loved-up and fulfilled, and despairingly lost and self-fraudulent, and make a real hash of things at the beginning.

And in the middle, and quits possibly near to the end too, because, to be fair, who the hell could ever be ready or equipped for everyone dying around them, and very quickly too, from a virus known as 6DM or Six Days Maximum, which sweeps around the world so quickly in late 2023 that no one can react fast enough. not even with all the freshly-learnt COVID-19 lessons still very much at the front of government and public consciousness.

Yes, the protagonist, along with the rest of the UK, watched in horror as the virus stormed across the globe killing everyone it touched, and had time to understand what it was they were facing, but even with that foresight, there was simply no way to prepare for society’s rapid collapse.

Or, miraculously, in the case of the protagonist that you might, against all odds, survive the damn thing — who saw that coming?

What is so brilliantly refreshing about Last One at the Party, which defies narrative expectations at every original turn (even the ending is a gloriously clever piece of immensely satisfying storytelling), is that Clift is blatantly and winningly honest about what might happen to someone in that position from the get-go.

It feels like at all times that we’re reading about a real person making less than ideal decisions and struggling to deal with the sudden loss of her husband, parents, best friend and everyone one she knows, and that is oddly liberating.

Bethany Clift (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

That’s not to say that we don’t want to feel like we could triumph over apocalyptic adversity because doesn’t want to feel like they are winning at life, especially when there is no more life, but we all suspect that if we, like the protagonist, felt out of place and existentially stricken in the course of everyday life, that we’re hardly going to magically transform overnight when all the things that that imperfect life somewhat bearable is suddenly ripped out from under us.

So the protagonist in Last One at the Party is a blessed relief, someone with whom we can identify and who, in her fumbling messiness, helps us to make sense of a vividly-changed world in a way that seems like it could happen.

Weight of having to be apocalyptic overcomer taken off us – PHEW.

What makes Last One at the Party so special too is that the protagonist, who parties – she has everything at her fingertips, that childhood dream of having endless indulgence and the freedom to make the most of it come to life (or death, as the case may be) – despairs, rallies, doesn’t rally and whose only companion is a rescued Golden Retriever called Lucky, three chickens and a cockerel naked Simon, actually doesn’t find her inner Indiana Jones as the story goes on.

But even then when she finds her inner overcomer, her life is magically better because while she is safe and can eat and care for herself, with all the detritus of civilisation at her disposal, the grim reality is that she is alone in a scary new world, she is still her fallible broken self and she is very much, heartbreakingly, alone.

“I wanted to tell him I was afraid I may never get out of bed again and that this was it. No trip to Soho Farmhouse, no glamourous death in Egyptian cotton sheets. I would just slowly fade away in a heap of nothing until I was a pile of dust like the ones that had gathered in Susan Palmers’ house.

I wanted to tell him to leave while he still could, that I couldn’t be there for him any more, that I couldn’t be there for anyone. I was done.

But I knew he wouldn’t understand.

One of the drawbacks of having a dog for my best, and only, friend.” (P. 223)

This might sound grimly despairing but it doesn’t, not for a moment.

By being so honest with us, Clift gives us a story and a protagonist that feels authentic and true, whose journey from hapless office worker caught unprepared at the end of the world to someone who manages to keep herself and her found family of birds and animals alive, feel wonderfully, beautifully freeing.

At turns funny and self-deprecatory, tearily grief-stricken and self-recriminatory, triumphant and hopelessly lost, Last One at the Party is that apocalyptic novel you have been craving, a story that feels unburdeningly real and uplifting and something with which you can wholly identify.

In fact, you come to love the protagonist warts and all because she isn’t horrible or awful or nasty; she’s just fallibly human, like all of us, and trying her best to navigate what feels, much of the time, to be completely unnavigable.

Last One at the Party is so groundedly emotionally resonant that while you recoil in horror at the idea of being that alone, and wonder how you would cope in the same situation – pray it never comes to pass because 6DM makes COVID-19 look like walk through the park – you are assured that for all your failures and frailties and lack of resources and skills, that you might find a way through the morass of loss, grief and crushing isolation, and might become someone altogether different, a person who would rather be anywhere but marooned at the end of history but manages to find a way, against all odds and expectations, to keep the story going in ways powerful and yet altogether understandably human.

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