The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson review – apocalyptic thriller preys on Australians’ worst nightmares

Simpson’s page-turner, about a recluse living in the aftermath of bushfires and pandemic, makes us see the world anew as it meditates on the importance of companionship

Spectral, shapeshifting predators stalk Rachel, the glass artist at the centre of Australian writer Inga Simpson’s fourth novel. Set in the aftermath of bushfires and pandemic, The Last Woman in the World layers precise nature writing with a conspiratorial tone for our times, turning in a gripping apocalyptic thriller that infects the sublime features of the landscape with primal fear.

Rachel’s past traumas have prompted her to isolate herself in her artist’s bush studio, and she reluctantly answers the door to a woman, Hannah, holding her ill baby son, Isaiah, who claims they are the last humans left alive.

A confluence of fear presses down on Rachel, as indeed it has been pressing down on us all in a world assaulted by global heating, bushfires, pandemic and enforced isolation, while politicians prevaricate on demonstrating leadership. Rachel is immediately suspicious of this mother and child, “its face an ugly red”, and its biblical name meaning saviour: “The religious right had a lot to answer for, derailing the country, dragging it backwards.”

The trio soon race through the Monaro high plains of New South Wales and into the cloistered bunkers of Parliament House and Department of Defence in Canberra. Seeking help for Isaiah, they witness the quick and shocking deaths of strangers along the way, whose faces crumple and collapse, gothic images of human destruction dredged from dreams, like the subjects of Bosch or Bacon or Goya paintings.

Is this another virus at work? If it is, there are no symptoms. Rachel also learns that while she has been a hermit making art in the forest that anti-government protesters armed with weapons have held a community under siege for months, now joined by refugees, prison escapees and the homeless; a movement lacking political cohesion and with much mental illness in its ranks, the corollary of our algorithmic age that manipulates outliers through social media.

Simpson herself lives on the NSW south coast in a house made of ironbark and stone, built by her father in an area decimated by the 2019-20 bushfires, and while finishing the first draft of The Last Woman in the World had to flee twice, as fires engulfed settlements around her. Her writing conveys a keen eye for the bushland as well as a visceral wariness of disparate fires joining forces, of “smoke that obscured the sun for months, even in the cities” and, most ominously, “fires were the future”.

The Last Woman in the World is elevated from mere page-turner to art via ambiguity: Rachel feels pursued by malevolent forces known collectively as they or them. These bad-faith actors trying to grab Rachel might be human survivors motivated by conspiracy, or they might be human-like ghosts that can fly and move through walls, or perhaps they are the detritus of Rachel’s mind troubled by personal trauma and global catastrophe. Or all of the above.

While the outside world forever threatens fresh man-made disasters and viral variants, Rachel’s fear of becoming “we” again, triggering her dependency on others, is very relatable, as we all must adjust to the new normality of bumping up against one another again, albeit with masks and some social distancing, together facing fear of the unknown and unforeseen.

Simpson’s slow drip-feed of the traumas that ail Rachel – parental deaths as a child, assault committed upon her as an adult – works slightly against this relatability, taking a little too long to reveal. Meanwhile the suggestion a vaccine based on a synthetic form of a hormone involved in human bonding through childbirth and breast-feeding – oxytocin – could be the panacea for the mystery illness is a bit heavy in its messaging.

More interesting here are the meditations on the importance of others in these times, the collective rather than the perpendicular pronoun of the atomised “I”: recovering her senses, Rachel remembers the team effort of learning her craft in classes: “The heat, not just fire and molten glass, but of bodies, companionship.”

Simpson makes clear the important role of art in making us see the world anew: documenting, reflecting and asking questions. If she is a real artist, Rachel cannot afford to look away, just as none of us can afford to allow the future to be taken out of our hands.

Contributor

Steve Dow

The GuardianTramp

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