The Last One: A Novel
Alexandra Oliva has set the bar high in her debut novel The Last One. A post-apocalyptic thriller, the story involves two topics: reality television and a pandemic that destroys half the population of the world. The author deftly jockeys between both as she tells the story of the book’s protagonist known as “Zoo.”
This young married woman joins a twelve-person cast on a reality TV show simply looking for an adventure; however, once filming begins, her sought-after challenge develops into a life and death saga that will keep readers racing through chapters thirsting for information. As days pass into weeks, the lines between reality and TV show become as blurry as trying to see through a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription.
Zoo becomes separated from the others during a solo challenge and must fend for herself. That means her survival skills, a la the TV show, Survivor, are put to the test daily. Weather, wild animals, and later, human beings, all combine to keep her on edge 24/7. To prepare herself to write about surviving in the wilderness, the author not only researched the topic, she also attended a two-week survival school in Colorado. The results of her hard work are clear as the outdoor scenes of starting fires, building shelters, etc., are spot on.
Constantly aware of hidden cameras and microphones, Zoo at first tries to stay within character as a contestant. Eventually she realizes there are no more cameras, and there is no show. In fact, the only thing that matters anymore is for her to survive long enough to find her way home and reunite with her husband.
The show itself is gimmicky—people isolated in the wilderness performing certain tasks and challenges that produce rewards. The difference, however, is that instead of being voted off by the others, the individual contestant must voluntarily leave.
The challenges themselves are not very creative, and the author gives the reader an inside view of behind the scenes manipulation by the TV crew. Cameras are everywhere, fake props are inserted here and there, and the camerapersons aren’t shy about giving suggestions to the participants about how to make things look more interesting. Conflict is encouraged and makes for excellent ratings. Each contestant has a nickname, and as is always the case, there is one villain who is hated by contestants and viewers alike.
The pacing of the story is good, as is the dialogue. The author’s description of places and things puts the reader right there, allowing for easy visualization of every venue. Character development is excellent, particularly Zoo, who we learn about in small bits and pieces as the story proceeds. Interestingly, we are able to see how human emotion and psyche play an integral role in her survival. The constant ebb and flow of emotion is clearly visible as we watch Zoo tackle each hurdle she encounters. At times, her drive is almost beyond comprehension, the human psyche proves to be a powerful force.
Readers may be a bit put off because the author doesn’t explain the plague until almost the end of the book. Perhaps an earlier explanation would have made for less skepticism and confusion as to why Zoo doesn’t encounter anyone on her trek home. The denouement is satisfying, albeit somewhat mediocre.
For the most part, Miss Oliva’s writing is strong and powerful, and the story moves smoothly. The Last One seems suitable for a mini-series or movie. Her next offering will be worth the wait.