Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Last One At The Party By Bethany Clift: A Review
Bethany Clift’s prescient debut novel was likely never intended to depict what has become reality for the world of 2021. Its publication now is both apt and uncanny, given its subject matter, however, despite the unnerving similarity to our present circumstances, it does offer light relief. Because, when facing a real worldwide pandemic that is ruining the lives of so many, a touch of dark humour can most certainly be welcome.
Last One at the Party
is the diary transcript of an unnamed protagonist, who finds herself alone in December 2023 after a pandemic has besieged the world. The disease is called 6DM – short for “Six Days Maximum” – that’s how quickly it gets you. And it is ghastly – the type of disease that would strike in a disaster movie. But this novel is refreshingly distinct from the disaster-movie-genre because our protagonist is perhaps the most impractical of sole survivors. Her irrational decisions when trying to pick up the pieces will bring a smile to the reader and when we ask ourselves ‘what would we do?’, the truth is that actually, we might well do the same.
Unlike Covid, this disease appears to have wiped everybody out. There are aspects that reassure us that this is a work of fiction – the British government, for example, blowing up the Dover end of the Channel Tunnel in an attempt to protect the British Isles. That said, in light of what we have witnessed in the past ten months and the ongoing unpredictability of our government’s chosen strategy, would that really now be considered such an extraordinary decision?
A charge could be brought that perhaps this novel’s publication is too soon – people might not want to read a story of a pandemic whilst living through one. But, as the author informs us in the foreword, this book was conceived and almost wholly written before the arrival of coronavirus, but, more importantly, it is not a book about death: it is a book about survival.
The opening lines tell us exactly what we can expect from our protagonist. She is blunt, direct, and appealingly honest. Her diary isn’t written for an audience, so, despite her profession as a writer, it is not edited – instead, it is the heart and soul of a woman in despair. So ordinary, so recognisable, a lady to whom many could relate.
Considered purely as a work of dystopian fiction, I believe this book brings a new dynamic to that particular genre. Disturbing, evocative, upsetting – yes, in part, but equally light-hearted and likely to prompt a chuckle – our protagonist would certainly be unlikely to take centre stage of a Hollywood blockbuster. One could imagine the exasperation of Robert Neville (I Am Legend
) faced with the unashamedly dysfunctional actions of our leading lady.
But, her initial response to the crisis is exactly why we take comfort. She is real. Let’s face it – how many folk abandoned Dry January to seek momentary solace in liquid form? And, being honest, if you could, would you really not be tempted to loot Harrods?
Of course, however, reality stubbornly persists, and therefore the protagonist does begin to try to plan for her future. Along the way she discloses more about how she came to the present point in time, recalling anecdotes from her past, her encounters, her relationships, and with striking accuracy and candour, her struggles with mental health. This will strike a chord with those who experience anxiety and panic attacks; it is refreshing to hear her say it as it is. Without making assumptions about the author’s own experience, to me this is not taken from the pages of a textbook – this is written by someone who understands the irrationality of anxiety, understands the frustration that is felt when the knowledge of its illogicality does nothing to diminish its impact. The protagonist recalls episodes with detachment – it has happened, it passed, and whilst it will undoubtedly recur, right here right now she talks with the same disinterested tone in which you might discuss a dull work meeting.
With the same honesty she does not disguise how horrible she has been in the past: the rash decisions that backfired, the things she should or shouldn’t have said. Thematically, the book covers familiar territory – the need for connection with others, the battle between emotion and reason and, of course, our response to living in a world in which everything about us is judged. The reader might recognise a nod to feminism – this is a single woman, a sole survivor, forging her own path, surviving without men. But it also reflects strongly on the pressure that women, and indeed men, feel to conform to stereotype and convention - how we may all feel in response to the judgement of social media. It explores how we often view ourselves based entirely on the opinion of others, lacking faith in our own conviction and how we all wear masks to disguise the truth and anguish that hides beneath. In her isolation, we observe the protagonist come into her own, and we know that had it not been for the death of humanity, she probably would have remained a prisoner of her own perceived inadequacies and failures – unable to show her true colours for fear of a negative and critical reception.
She is no hero, she is replete with flaws. But we witness an acceptance of past mistakes and the realisation that life simply must go on. She does make foolish decisions in her attempt to move forward, but acceptance of herself is what gives her a fresh perspective. She has no choice now, she cannot simply bury her head in the sand and slide into obscurity; she must learn new skills to survive, she must find the internal strength to keep going – but this, naturally, is not easy. A very minor criticism might be that the protagonist experiences perhaps one too many lucky breaks, but ultimately, this is not a story of Wonder Woman and she deserves a break.
The latter stages of the book usher in a plot development that I felt to be clichéd – it has been done before. However, it does deal with the question of what the role of women is considered to be. Does it demonstrate the trap that the female sex often falls into, whether they wish it or not, or is it more a suggestion that we must not give up, however many setbacks we encounter? Is it about female empowerment, showing that men are unnecessary and that women can control their own destiny? Whilst I did not welcome this plot twist, other readers will undoubtedly form their own conclusions.
A compelling, engaging, enthralling novel that keeps the reader turning the pages. Candidly written, its literary style is a casual account that might be found in almost any personal journal. Likely to inspire both tears of laughter and of pain, I at first felt distinctly perturbed by its uncanny resonance with the here and now. However, despite never learning her name, we become intimately acquainted with our protagonist, you forgive her past misdemeanours and you appreciate her honesty. She is perhaps the embodiment of so many in our modern society – troubled, judged, perfectly aware of her own flaws but desperate to conceal them. The strap line of the book is “The End of Everything was her Beginning” and we must ask – would this not apply to us all these days?
Last One at the Party
will be published by Hodder & Stoughton February 4th 2021 and is available to pre-order now.
An exclusive signed edition is available from Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/last-one-at-the-party/bethany-clift/9781529371963