The Last Woman in the World (Inga Simpson, Hachette)
Inga Simpson’s fourth novel asks who we would choose to become in a catastrophic near-future Australia. Ray, short for Rachel, is a glass artist who sequesters herself deep in the bush, interacting only with her sister and a trusted gallery go-between to deliver her pieces. She is recovering from a personal breakdown, but Ray’s tightly controlled life also protects her from a society much like ours—only magnified to overwhelm. Bushfires, pandemics plural, climate cataclysm and extremist politics have made her retreat, and so the sudden arrival of a stranger carrying a sick baby and news of a fresh apocalypse are unprecedented challenges. Ray quickly rallies and the trio set out to find help for baby Isaiah on foot and by boat, dodging the few other survivors they encounter and making do with field dressings and guesswork. Their eventual destination is Canberra and Ray’s sister, and, perhaps, a cure for the plague. I liked the passages where the women and child made their way through town and country, with well-observed reflections on cultivated land, urban trees, art and how to minimise harm. The plague’s form and mechanism are never quite made explicit and there are occasional horror tropes that feel awkward, but Ray’s arc as she transforms from fearful recluse to hard-bitten survivalist is a believable triumph. The Last Woman in the World is a reluctantly grim, subtle literary novel hidden deep in a thriller’s dress-up box.
Anne Barnetson is a bookseller and illustrator based in Perth.