On a remote Scottish island, five children remain.
Our narrator is eight year old Rona, who still talks to her mum everyday even though the Last Adult is long since buried. It is through her we meet Elizabeth, the eldest, and a mother-figure fond of rules; Alex, only five and reliant on a dwindling supply of insulin; and brothers Calum Ian and Duncan who are the only ones who still have family from the Past World.
They go ‘shopping’ in houses for undiscovered food, know what wrong smells they must avoid, and can protect themselves against increasingly hostile dogs. But, in true Lord of the Flies fashion, they can’t protect themselves from internal power dynamics or the chain of events that a challenge to the groups leadership sets in motion.
Memories play an important role in the book as the children struggle to hold on to the faces of those they loved; the vocabulary of product and places they once needed to use every day; the endless bounty that once existed. They practice remembering good things:
It’s like stones you find on the beach. Polish them, make them shine. Keep them warm in your hand. Make a new ending. Where nobody gets sick, and the electricity comes back, like it should have done, like it always did when there was only a storm
However, it is hard to only bring back good memories, and it is often through unwelcome flashbacks that we piece together exactly what happened to the adults.
The Last of Us is full of tiny, heartbreaking reminders of how young and traumatised these children are. Their skin is covered in scars from a mysterious illness, but their psychological scars are more obliquely referenced: “It’s the same drawing he always does: of a face with black scored-out holes for eyes”. Their struggle to make sense of a world changed beyond measure captivated me utterly. Ewing has a knack for small touches that bring empathy and compassion to what could have easily felt like 28 Days Later Lite* in lesser hands.
Much like the remote Scottish island on which it is set, this book is simultaneously bleak and beautiful. A powerful depiction of the will to survive and the importance of shining bright in your life no matter how dark the surroundings, this one will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended.
*there are no zombies!
The Last of Us is published by HarperCollinsUK. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.