Last Words by Jackson Lear [Book Review]
I really enjoyed this. It starts off as a holiday diary of a 23 year old British back-packer making his way around Europe. The tension builds gradually from inconvenience and annoyance into the full blown horror of a zombie apocalypse. It felt much more real and plausible to me than most of the zombie books I’ve read, with one exception.
Mark spends most of his time running away and trying vainly to get home. He travels with a small group of friends, who gradually get split up for one reason or another. He travels through Spain, over to Morocco, into a civil war torn Algeria and then to Tunisia. Through this he relies on others to speak or translate or help. Mark is just a normal guy with no special skills, no weapons and no language other than English. All he wants is to get back home. What he gets is hardship, starvation, official obstructionism and a load more.
The story is presented as a diary. It starts with his arrival in Madrid to stay over with his school friend Rachel. The first part of the story is the normal life part, telling her of his adventures, and partying with Rachel and her flatmates. This diary starts on paper, but there are clear mentions at key points that he’s been using his down time to type and email it to himself and his parents. He worries that these will be his last words to his parents. So as you read it you can’t be sure exactly what is going to happen to Mark, or if he will make it home. As he reflects himself about 80% of the way through, the summary of his experiences are “and then it got worse”. It most certainly does…
spoilers below the cut
I’ve written before about things that suspend my disbelief in zombie stories. This story avoids most of them, it also has an interesting take on zombies.
The zombies are viewed through a heavily biased media lens in the early stages of the Last Words. Initially it seems that fleas or something of that ilk are spreading the disease. It takes 3-4 days before people feel unwell, and another 3-4 days before they succumb, with another 2-3 days before they turn into zombies. The initial spread is in ones and twos. No-one knows where they started from, but they’re in a lot of countries. Also, those bitten by the zombies turn much faster than those that get flea bites. I liked this aspect of the Last Words‘ zombies.
One of the interesting features of the zombies is that they’re not totally mindless. Early reports show them firing back with a shotgun, or driving vehicles. Later they talk. All the with the same voice. It seems that at least some of the time they can be directly controlled by someone else. A mysterious Haitian. As the zombies spread, and Mark encounters them, it becomes clear that they are working to a plan. The zombies ask people to surrender. While I don’t buy the mind-control bit, it does make the zombies scarier – because they have agency of a sort.
The government responses varied by country, but had a common theme, isolationism and self-interest. Mark is in Madrid when things start to happen, and initially everything seems normal. He’s living a party life in a flat with a dozen students, all foreigners in Spain. The first zombies are rare, adn they don’t seem to be attacking people. So the police try to arrest them. No-one refers to them as zombies, and the news speculates on the strange virus and whether it is curable.
The next stage is closing borders. Flights are cancelled as aircraft are grounded. This is followed by attempts to control the movement of people and goods. The government think that contaminated meat might be spreading the disease. So they sieze and destroy all fresh meat. It’s the sort of thing we’ve already seen with terrorist incidents and also foot & mouth and bird flu.
After this the Spanish government tries is mass decontamination by spraying disinfectant over the city. That’s when Mark sees his first zombie. It’s also when the Spanish try to evacuate the city, starting with some of the areas with lots of foreigners in them. That leads to riots, and the start of Mark (and company) going on the run.
It all seems very plausible, and it escalates through stages. The Spanish police aren’t keen on approaching zombies, or moving bodies. However they don’t go full metal jacket on them, they just use lassoos to round them up.
Everywhere else Mark goes there is hostility to travellers, and the police arrest them before sending them off for decontamination. Except in Morocco where they just deport them to Algeria (which is in the midst of a civil war).
By the time Mark reaches Sicily things have become extreme. The Italians have militarised their entire population and are using the foreigners as slave labour, especially the illegal ones like Mark & Rachel. Back in Britain it’s pretty similar, the UK turns itself into a fascist police state and conscripts everyone into the armed forces.
Mark survives, but not all of his friends do. He suffers nightmares from seeing some die, and wishes he could have done things differently. Mark has breakdowns at several points. He berates himself for not acting. Yet he does act. Mark crosses the mediterranean twice, escapes from zombies several times, and from a slave labour camp. He makes it back home, although not without losing everything he took with him, including two close friends. He survives the quarantine, even when it is continually extended on him given the number of high risk places he has been.
Finally he arrives home to find out the Rachel made it home just before he did. The last words of the title aren’t Mark’s, they’re Rachel’s. We don’t find out what they are, because Rachel’s mum refuses to pass on the letter she left for him with her Last Words in it…