The key to being able to engage fully with The Last One, Alexandra Oliva's acclaimed debut novel, is to empathise with Zoo, the contestant in the survival reality TV show, that is the centrepiece of the novel.
There's a lot to like about Zoo. She's resourceful, tough and competitive but also human and sympathetic with her fellow contestants as they face the grueling challenges and deprivations of the show. And so as this almost painfully modern novel begins, with Zoo and her fellow survivalists thrown out into woods to start their tests, it's easy to fall quickly into a rapid narrative that is full of insightful observations of the nature of the media and of human behaviour and is a pacy, entertaining story.
The problem comes when we readers discover that society is breaking down due to some sort of viral epidemic and the book becomes part dystopian fiction. As the book's publicity says: '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.'
This at first is fine. It's an interesting twist. The problem comes that Zoo creates ever more elaborate constructions in her mind to explain the inexplicable scenes she sees. And after a while it start reading as if the author was trying to convince herself that this construct held up. Unfortunately it didn't convince me, the tension evaporates and for a while the story all but lost me.
The fact that I read to the end is testament to the fact that there's some really good stuff in The Last One. The early chapters, and even some of the later ones, are full of good writing and astute observations. There's a good reality TV novel in The Last One and the makings of a good dystopian story, and I suspect the pairing would work brilliantly for a movie but for me they didn't fit together well here. It's a promising, if flawed debut, and I'll definitely look out for Oliva's next book.