Review by Phoebe Cuskelly
Inga Simpson’s The Last Woman in the World exploits the fear inspired by Australian environmental disasters to deliver a post-apocalyptic thriller.
The novel revolves around Rachel, a social recluse living off the coastline of New South Wales. She has survived bushfires and pandemics, but is stumped when Hannah and her sick son, Isaiah, appear on her doorstep begging for help. The world has been decimated by (the always italicised) them – a shapeshifting, sadistic force that leaves their victims desperate and deformed (think The Scream vibes).
Our leads are on their way to Canberra in search of Hannah’s husband and Rachel’s sister. The threat is vague and so is why our three main characters survive. They manage to out-manoeuvre them while also facing raging bushfires and the survivor led militia.
In no way is this a bad novel. As a fourth time novelist, Simpson’s writing is patient and confident. The book has a simple story arc, and strives to build moments of unexpected tension. Simpson is known for her love of nature writing, and the setting in this story is no exception. Rather than delivering a sharp and pithy thriller, this story is brimming with detailed descriptions of the Australian bush.
Simpson lives in a fire-prone area on the NSW coastline, and was forced to flee twice while writing this book. Knowing the novel is instilled with personal experience, adds intensity to the imagery. Melodramatic moments transform into visceral reality in Simpson’s quest to illustrate the pure devastation wreaked by the bush fires.
For much of the novel, the ‘thrills’ are predictable. Rachel and Hannah split up, enter an abandoned building where they linger and almost fall prey to them– saved at the last moment by Hannah humming a pop song (said in the acknowledgements to be ‘Getaway Car’ by the GOAT, Taylor Swift). Simpson’s stripped back sentence length makes you want to check they survive, but it’s never really in question. The beginning chapters are short and repetitive. However, it’s this pattern of spoon-fed anticipation which makes this book a success. When Simpson finally starts killing off the characters you care about, it is truly unexpected. I had to do multiple re-reads to stem my disbelief.
In the end, The Last Woman in the World is less about the eradication of them and more about the evolution of our protagonist. Her fear of depending on others is highly relatable in a post-covid world. Rachel’s choice to remove herself from the world to work as a glass maker and live off the land was a response to severe trauma – losing both parents as a child and sexual assault as a young-adult. Simpson was slow to reveal these details, which diminished the likability of the protagonist. The dialogue, especially, was lacking. Rachel would go from calm and conversational, to yelling at Hannah – a heavy huff or tears the only indication of a mood swing. Removing the ambiguity around Rachel’s life earlier in the plot would have created a more empathetic response from readers. Nonetheless, Rachel quickly learns the importance of companionship in times of trouble. When she arrives back at her isolated bush studio, Isaiah strapped to her chest, and more alone than ever, you know she’s going to be okay.
Simpson tried to tackle a lot with this novel, leaving her ideas under-developed and lacking in suspense. The story is a keen reflection of what the world has been through, and perhaps a warning of what is to come. Overall, it does all the things a good thriller needs to do – it makes the reader believe they smell the trail, before chucking in some unexpected twists and turns to deliver a full-circle and satisfying finish.