Hachette, Australia, 2021
Post-apocalyptic, post fires, post COVID, allegorical, this novel should be fantasy, but we have experienced these things and seen both the reduction and the exaltation of human beings and society, and so we read this work as highly possible, highly probable, as real.
Retreating to the solitude of the forest, Rachel, a glass blower, is one day disturbed by the appearance on her doorstep of Hannah and her baby Isaiah. He is sick and Hannah needs help, but she brings worse news of a pestilence that is killing people, excruciatingly and apparently indiscriminately.
After considerable wrestling with herself, Rachel agrees to help Hannah and they set off at first by boat and then by foot up the traditional Indigenous pathway from the sea to the mountains, the Bundian Way via Nimmitabel, where Rachel and her sister Monique have grown up.
After witnessing more of the savagery of this indescribable force (them) and finding that they have just missed Monique, they head for Canberra, hoping to find Monique and Hannah’s partner Kyle. On the way they experience more death, chaos and savagery. They also form a close bond of friendship and support.
The story reads like a road movie, equally absorbing us in its riveting plot and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible landscape. We expect a hymn to forests, wild places and landscape from Inga Simpson, and indeed we are not disappointed.
Her descriptions of the land are powerful, lyrical passages that come like salves amidst the visual horror of the pestilence, a man-made phenomenon which feeds, it seems, on fear. Only the fearless, the newly born innocents and the desperate are immune – along with those in official isolation seeking a solution, holding the fort.
This book is deeply affecting, insistent that we examine ourselves and question the limits of our civilised and decorous behaviour – when do we become the desperate, the murderous, the less than human? How much more do we need to see and experience of our own destructive capabilities as human being before we act for change, insisting on pause?
Inga Simpson writes with facility and literary brilliance – The Last Woman in the World is an action driven novel, but it is also intensely philosophical, a clever study of character and intensely beautiful.
Many fine books have been published in Australia in the last couple of years, fires and pandemic notwithstanding. This is amongst the best. It will stay with me long after the last page was turned.