British author Bethany Clift and her debut novel

The pandemic novel that’s about to be a phenomenon

Books editor Catherine Woulfe reviews Bethany Clift’s Last One at the Party.

What lots of reviewers mean when they say “compelling” is, I think, something like, “Reading is my job now; thank god this one was actually quite good.”

I’m going to say “compelling” about this one and I mean something closer to the dictionary definition: “Evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.” I mean compelling like strong opioids. Or sugar.

I mean that in the interest of self-care I had to leave this book in the lounge at night so that it didn’t keep me up until 4am. I mean that for the two days I was reading this book I did not play with my 18-month-old. What I did instead was stand close to her and read.

The thing is this book, a debut by UK writer Bethany Clift, is exactly, precisely, compellingly my jam. It’s like it was designed by some kind of spooky but also awesome reading algorithm. I have read 8000 versions of it, many of them lesser, none of them quite like it: The Martian, Wool, The Road, Severance, Hatchet, The Dog Stars, Station Eleven, The Passage, Atwood – my favourite books are those where you end up alone somewhere with a bit of canned food, the odd hot bath if you’re lucky, and maybe an animal companion. Where you get to rummage through people’s homes and run round in your undies and abandon your phone, and generally display oodles of pluck.

You get all of that here, but you get more: the person alone in this book is a woman, and unusually, she is gloriously, properly alone, so we don’t waste precious pages analysing social dynamics in extremis. We zoom in to one life and we get real comfy in there. We care.

Also, she is a shambles, to a degree that feels radical in post-apocalyptic fiction. Sometimes the pleasure I take from these novels is about watching boxes get ticked. Watching someone more pragmatic than me carefully work the equations of their own survival. Vicarious, industrious drudgery: good, yes, there is hope for humanity after all, maybe, because people capable of such logic and resourcefulness exist in the world. I’m content to spend many page-months alongside a dull character as long as they’re cutting firewood or planting potatoes or setting up a rudimentary comms system. That is deeply not what happens here.

Instead, to start with, there is loads of Tramadol and a raid on Harrods. Booze and face cream and fancy sheets. A lovely few nights at the Langham, smashed on champagne, compartmentalising hard, gobbling olives and maraschino cherries. For an extended period of time our heroine drives all over the UK high as hell and all but unconcerned about that.

Later, she goes through two boxes of matches trying to light a fire in a fireplace replete with newspaper and kindling and dry wood. There’s a bit where she runs out of diesel like an absolute fool, even after running out of petrol like an absolute fool, and almost dying, a few months prior. There is very little parsing of why she didn’t die of the virus along with everyone else, and zero fuss about whether she might still do so. There is very little planning. There’s a bit where she realises a huge hungry animal – a lion or a bear, something scary – is in the woods near the place she’s staying. She’s freaked out for like two days, then reverts to life as normal. Every other post-apocalyptic protagonist would tsssk wildly while muttering about traps and perimeter alarms but you’ll forgive her, because by now you love her, because she’s you – you would absolutely be that stupid idiot. We all would.

Something I only just realised, because it’s so subtly done: we never find out the protagonist’s name. All the better to subsume you, reader.

The protagonist is not a parent but you can tell that the author is. To be clear, this is not a book set after the apocalypse: she and therefore we must endure it, and pick our way through the stinking mess after. Which is to say that we watch every child in the world die. This part is done straight-on but with a wince, an intake of breath, a familiarity with the mechanics of the parental mind. Clift knows how we’d act in the face of existential threat and she also knows her readers well enough to show us just the edges of it, to go gentle. Ish. I read a rough part one morning as the kids danced to Anika Moa, and sobbed my way through ‘You Are My Sunshine’.

There were so many bits that I loved. This sentence, regarding a Porsche with a pleasing purr: “It was like driving a giant kitten.” The structure, which snicks together flashbacks and exposition with scenes of right-now horror. The fact that our heroine browses the cornucopia of a fully-stocked town library and takes everything by Marian Keyes and Jilly Cooper, and nothing else. That at the end of the world she curls up and watches The Gilmore Girls.

Some of the great tropes of post-apocalyptic writing are rolled out and revelled in, knowingly. I won’t tell you the biggie (although fans of the genre will guess it early on) but here are some others: there is a golden retriever and you’ll adore him. There’s a very well done feast/famine lurch. The building of a cosy home. Emptied-out cities, long drives, the moment the lights go out, the day you realise the seagulls are hunting the cats. The rats are enormous too, and multitudinous, and they’ve taken to sending out scouts to find fresh meat, ie her. “Squeaky fuckers,” she calls them. “They were smart and resourceful. I was fucking petrified.” Dogs are scary now and lope around in silent packs. There are wolves. Somehow, they’re not so scary. Lacking that uncanny jolt of the domestic gone wild, I suppose. (For more on this, see Laura Jean McKay’s astonishing The Animals in that Country, about a strange plague in Australia. McKay teaches creative writing at Massey and just won Australia’s richest literary prize, worth AUD$100,000. Yahoo!)

More menacing is the loneliness – at one point, in a silent house, I put the washing machine on just to keep me company. The proximity, too, of course. That’s pretty fucking terrifying. In this book it’s only 2023. As the new plague hits, Covid is remembered like a gentle warm-up, a systems test. The 2023 one is “chaos and madness”, “a juggernaut of pain and suffering”. It spreads devilishly fast and it’s called 6DM because it takes people out in six days max. Scientists don’t have much time for precision, due to them all dying too, but they figure it has a 100% kill rate. In 19 days it kills every human in Delhi. And here’s a fun tidbit to play back to yourself, late at night, when the world is feeling particularly fucked:

For the sparsely populated and more remote countries (New Zealand, Australia, parts of Canada) things seemed more positive. Reports came in that the virus had yet to reach them or was being successfully contained.

Of course, as soon as people read this, they found whatever means of transport they had and they headed straight for the “safe zones”. 

And they took 6DM with them.

[…] 

Australia was worst hit. Such a massive country, so much shoreline, so many flat areas to illegally land a plane. Australia went from doing quite well to obliterated in little over a month.

Oh, anxiety. My old friend.

In every magazine piece about anxiety disorders there’s a maddening sentence that goes something like this: “Of course there can be an upside to such tendencies – once upon a time, anxiety would have kept us vigilant, instinctively scanning the savannah for predators.” This might be of intellectual interest to people who are not clinically anxious, but for those who are? Ugh.

Clift’s protagonist is anxious as. She dithers and procrastinates and panics – and occasionally, accidentally, saves herself by doing so. As I read I got the feeling Clift was pushing back against that profoundly unhelpful pop-psych take, playing with it. I get that feeling with a lot of what she does in this book.

I think Clift is formidably smart, so smart that she feels no need to show off about it, which keeps her writing simple and dreamy, compelling. I think she is steeped in books, spec fic and chick lit and thrillers and everything else. I think she is dropping a deep curtsey to Atwood with her use of found documents (a diary and transcripts of audio) and her ending. I think she’s pretty cool, actually, for at the same time openly adoring Cooper and Keyes, and incorporating a very Cooper / Keyes backstory. I think she might one day sit alongside all three of them.

Because of this I am sure: she is about to be absolutely huge.

Last One at the Party, by Bethany Clift (Hodder & Stoughton, $34.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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