Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel is a tense and sophisticated survivalist thriller that explores how the human psyche copes when faced with impossible odds. Part big brother style reality show, part post-pandemic struggle, The Last One is both an exciting and frustrating high-concept read, one that starts off shakily but gets better the further the characters fall into despair.

The story follows twelve contestants as they embark on a new reality show called ‘Into the Dark’, where they stand to win a huge cash prize if they can beat the other eleven strangers. Pitted against each other in a series of group and solo survival challenges, the contestants are ordinary people thrown out of their comfort zones, pushed to the limit as they adjust to life without ordinary luxuries. They have to forage for food, purify their water, build fires and shelters, and maintain their sanity amidst extreme conditions.

Interspersed between the reality challenges with all the contestants present, we also individually follow Zoo – a competitor named for her job title – who agreed to take part in the TV show as one last selfish experience before returning to suburban life with her husband to start a family. As she wanders a deserted landscape, ignoring the warning signs that tell her something about the challenge has changed, she wonders what’s happened to the cameraman who should be permanently following her. She’s hungry, tired and delirious, but she won’t give up. She can’t.

As the survivalist game becomes more actual reality than faked TV show, Zoo’s endgame ceases to be about winning, but rather about just getting home to her safe, comfortable life. Unbeknown to Zoo though, that life she’s journeying back to, with the happy family and the greyhound dog, might not exist anymore. Zoo’s physical and psychological strength is tested as she encounters a young lad called Brennan who refuses to leave her side, and whom Zoo believes is just another ‘In the Dark’ obstacle sent to test her limits.

“Good intentions give way to self-preservation. No one knows for sure what happened, small scale or large. No one knows precisely what went wrong. But before he dies, the producer will know this much: Something went wrong.

The Last One is a tale of two halves, literally and figuratively. With half the book focusing on the twelve contestants partaking in the TV show, and the other half following Zoo as she staggers alone through empty towns and woods, it was inevitable that one storyline would be more engaging than the other. Here it’s Zoo’s individual mission that holds the most weight. There are so many characters to keep up with in the reality show, and so much description of what each contestant looks like and how they struggle through the challenges, that the first third of the novel is a slog to get through.

Battle through the earlier chapters though and you’re rewarded with more time with Zoo, who’s a compelling and resilient yet very ordinary character. She wasn’t ever going to win the TV show, that’s clear from the start, and yet her stubbornness stops her from giving up. Delving into Zoo’s increasingly fractured mind-set and her inability to acknowledge that the rules of the game unintentionally altered makes for a taut and unsettling read.

Despite the writing being somewhat inconsistent, Alexandra Oliva’s debut ultimately packs a punch. Having forgotten about the sluggish beginning, I raced through the final third of the book, anxious to know if Zoo would survive. The plot is complex and well thought out, with Oliva’s experience of hard-core outdoor survival skills giving the endurance challenges a real feeling of authenticity. And, ultimately, it’s Zoo who brings the story to life, showing that you don’t have to be a super survivalist to endure the worst life can throw at you.

★★★

The Last One was published in hardback by Michael Joseph on 14 July 2016

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