Book review: The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson

Saturday, October 30, 2021 Permalink

The Last Woman in the World is the third book I’ve read by Inga Simpson. I saw her speak at a bookshop locally around the time of her 2014 release Nest. I commented in that review about how inspiring I found her in person (and appreciated her blunt honesty about the challenges of becoming a published author), how much I loved her writing and her ability to instil in readers a sense of place.

I confess in my review of Where the Trees Were (2016) that I’m actually not a lover of nature. Of flora and fauna. And I’ve admitted on many occasions that I’m not a visual reader so not able to picture what I’m reading.

Simpson is evidently quite the opposite – seemingly passionate about nature, wildlife, conservation and the environment and all-things-living. And in her latest book she (again) excels in placing readers in a comforting isolated riverside haven, before taking us on dire journeys through small towns, along regional highways and then the streets of Canberra. All strewn with the debris of nature and man.

Book review: The Last Woman in the World by Inga SimpsonThe Last Woman in the World
by Inga Simpson
Published by Hachette Australia
on 27/10/2021
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9780733643491
Pages: 320

It's night, and dust swirls against the walls of Rachel's home in the Australian bush. Her fear of other people has led her to a reclusive life as far from them as possible, her only occasional contact with her sister.

A hammering on the door. There stand a mother, Hannah, and her sick baby. They are running for their lives from a mysterious death sweeping the Australian countryside - so soon, too soon, after everything.

Now Rachel must face her worst fears to help Hannah, search for her sister, and discover just what terror was born of us. . . and how to survive it.

Simpson’s writing is again beautiful. Eloquent and rich and full of detail that I am sure I don’t appreciate sufficiently. Her writing offers up a visceral sense that’s hard to explain and even I was able to ‘feel’ the setting of this narrative and the fear, panic and resoluteness of our characters.

I loved Rachel, though it takes us some time to understand her properly. She’s living as a recluse though seemingly not agoraphobic. Hiding from the world however and I was certainly keen to know why.

I obviously read too much crime fiction and novels of suspense as I was suspicious of Hannah’s arrival, though almost immediately Rachel – who has good spidey senses – recognises Hannah’s fear and believes her fantastic story of a dying world.

The pacing of this book is great. Hannah and Rachel (and baby Isaiah) are thrown curveball after curveball. They’re not just being pursued by ‘them’ – the shadows responsible for the seemingly painful and sudden deaths of almost everyone – but there are also other survivors threatening them, militia and well… the elements – namely fire.

Simpson notes that she experienced the bushfires that destroyed much of Australia’s landscape and wildlife in late 2019 and here she certainly is able to convey the depth of their danger. The book’s set after that time so there is a sense of regrowth and renewal but I felt an overwhelming awareness of the ruthlessness of fires toward anything and everything that lies before them, and their potency was communicated throughout this book – whether Simpson meant it to be or not.

The thing I struggled most with here was the ‘enemy’. Simpson is vague about ‘them’, about the shadows. People die painful and desperate deaths it seems but we don’t learn how. There’s reference to Covid and the pandemic but it’s a thing of the past and neither Hannah nor Rachel are able to hazard a guess at who or what the new menace involves. And of course then there’s the why which remains unanswered, though perhaps Rachel hits on a deeper theme when she wonders (given how similar to humans the creatures are) if we’ve done this to ourselves.

I was reminded of War of the Worlds  (the 2020-21 TV version) – certainly in terms of the way everyone dies and (spoiler alert for those not up to date with the show) we learn there that the attack is pretty much self-inflicted as our future selves return to the past to try to stop our actions. Not quite dystopian fiction but close enough.

I think I was mostly worried there was some deeper meaning I’d missed* – that there was no ‘them’. Initially I thought we were going to learn this was Rachel’s fragile mind playing tricks on her, then later that it was perhaps something we were manifesting ‘mentally’ rather than there being a physical threat.

As I said, I’m not visual but I wasn’t able to understand if the shadows were amorphous. How they were able to enter our minds or control our thoughts. And whether ‘the shadows’ were a finite and tangible moving thing able to be rounded up and destroyed?

Although I might not have gotten all of the nuances, I liked some of the other messaging and Simpson touches on everything from climate change, to covid and vaccine sceptics as well as the role science plays in identifying and responding to threats.

I liked the intimation that those who survive do so for a reason. Rachel initially believes her fear keeps her alive but then she learns more. I also appreciated the theme of rebels railing against the bureaucracy and it’s mentioned here that people were already distrustful of government before the deaths started and I suspect some what we’re seeing (IRL) in the present could be a precursor.

This is a really intelligent book by Simpson. Despite my inability to define and understand ‘the shadows’ I was riveted by the unfolding plot, worried about the fate of our three leads (counting baby Isaiah) and – if they survive – what their futures may hold.

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers for review purposes.

* Which was the case with Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things


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