Reading The Bray House and Last Ones Left Alive by Val Nolan

Reading The Bray House and Last Ones Left Alive by Val Nolan

[Note, this article contains spoilers for both Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House and Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive.]

Though published almost thirty years apart, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House (1990) and Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive (2019) share many similarities. Both are novels by women that explore post-apocalyptic Irelands as seen through the eyes of two psychologically complex female protagonists. Both involve journeys (to Ireland and across Ireland respectively), and both protagonists encounter survivors who have been scarred by their horrific experiences. Both protagonists are hungry for knowledge, but Ní Dhuibhne’s Robin is an academic and a trained observer cataloguing and reporting (with ironic unreliability) on what she finds, whereas Davis-Goff’s teenage Orpen never truly understands what she is seeing or how the broken pieces of Ireland might once have fit together as a whole. On a narrative level, of course, the books are very different: The Bray House is a nuclear winter story of a middle-aged archaeologist that (as I discussed at WorldCon 2017 in Helsinki) both dramatises the worst fears of 1980s Irish nuclear anxiety and is conversant with the structure of Old Irish voyage tales. By contrast, The Last Ones Left Alive is a fast-paced story of a girl fighting for her life in an Ireland overrun by the undead (what Davis-Goff calls ‘Skrake’) who might represent climate change or capitalism or the cannibalistic end state of institutionalised misogyny; it is a book that rejects ingrained cultural stereotypes of Irish womanhood while readily sorting itself into the contemporary zombie genre recognisable from the likes of The Girl with all the Gifts or The Walking Dead.

In The Bray House, the apocalypse is specific but definitely science-fictional in nature (a chain meltdown of British nuclear plants that wipes out neighbouring Ireland) and so an exaggeration of concerns prominent at the time of the novel’s composition. In Last Ones Left Alive, the ultimate origin of the Skrake is left unspecified (an ‘accident’) and so this feminist bildungsroman marshals the inherent ambiguities of zombie fiction to fuel its chilling and uncertain atmosphere throughout. Where Ní Dhuibhne leaves the land destroyed, buried under meters of coal-black ash with only mounds and hillocks indicating the presence of buildings (‘no traces of organic life of any kind’), Davis-Goff portrays a nation abandoned to the roving Skrake, an Ireland essentially rewilded in the process (‘everywhere there is life’). Modern buildings such as shops and churches now exist as ‘doorless, roofless, glassless’ ruins which have begun to crumble and collapse (the story’s science-fictionality being light touch and referential as much as anything else, such as a copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti on a shelf). In both books the people are gone (or largely gone, for in Davis-Goff the people not sheltering in the east-coast enclave of Phoenix City—essentially Dublin—have themselves been rewilded, transformed into vicious animalistic creatures) and evidence of their presence is being absorbed back into the landscape with rusting road signs covered in ivy and the smaller roads ‘swallowed up by the woods’.

Crucially, both novels use a home to interrogate established stereotypes about Ireland, the titular Bray House serving as a physical time capsule filled with abandoned diaries and newspapers, the house in Last Ones Left Alive an emotional one preserving a semblance of childhood innocence against the backdrop of the end of the world (‘You wouldn’t know we were in a ghost-house in a ghost-estate and a ghost-country, the way I was reared in that house’). Read together, the novels offer us two very different Irish houses, Ni Dhuibhne’s on the east coast, Davis-Goff’s on the west. The former is a symbol of establishment propriety (it is the home of a solicitor in the greater Dublin area) and what is unearthed here critiques the façade of respectability which often accompanies the same. The latter is literally a refutation of east coast authority (up to and including the foundational myths of the modern state), a house on a remote western island which has been deliberately distressed in order to remain hidden (‘On the outside ours was as wrecked as the others, or worse, and boards on the windows, but mostly so that you can’t see that behind them the glass is in one piece still. The inside of ours is a living house’). Yet while Robin in The Bray House compiles a detailed report about what she discovers in the dwelling she excavates (supplied by Ni Dhuibhne as a crucial part of the novel’s text), Orpen’s post-apocalyptic home—described in extensive flashbacks—is a mishmash of looted and repurposed things from which she gleams only impressions of the lives once lived in the ruined houses, businesses, and schools that she explores. She collects what to Robin might be artefacts but to us is just rubbish: tin cans, ‘rectangles of glass and plastic’, rotting magazines, and so on. She has no single site of excavation and instead her investigations, such as they are, range freely over ruined homes on the island and those she encounters on her transits of the mainland.

Filled with abandoned and deteriorating villages, as well as towns full of buildings ‘slouching and fallen on top of each other’, Last Ones Left Alive portrays the west and midlands of Ireland as places left behind and forgotten by an official nation in which all roads lead to Dublin (as someone said to me lately, ‘The Celtic Tiger never made it past Galway’) and thus by the authorities of the dystopian—and one imagines sequel-ready—Phoenix City. In that way it makes an ideal place to hide in the same way it has for generations of fictional and factual Irish rebels. Indeed, that Orpen’s childhood refuge on Slanbeg—where she is raised by her mother and her mother’s partner Maeve—lies off the west coast is an obvious gesture towards both the Celtic Twilight tradition of the west as a romanticised, frequently mythologised site of traditional Irish identity, and also the more modern incarnation of the same, the idea of the west as being, well, not Dublin, a site of ideological opposition to early twenty-first century technocracy (a refutation made literally concrete in the so-called Achillhenge, what I have elsewhere termed ‘The Tomb of the Celtic Tiger’). Last Ones Left Alive rejects this modern romanticisation as readily as it does the that of the literary revival. For Orpen, her mother, and Maeve are neither JM Synge’s ‘drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts’ nor de Valera’s ‘comely maidens’. Neither are they the contemporary inheritor of that trope, the Manic Pixie Galway Girl (paging Ed Sheeran). They are instead the antithesis of the beguiling, subservient figures populating those fantasies; they are characters with decisive agency, highly trained warriors—implied to be rogue ‘Banshees’—who have rejected east coast claims to their bodily autonomy and cultural identity, and who are capable of gutting anything that moves.

Inevitably, the much older Robin in The Bray House has a more complicated relationship with the stereotypes of west and east coast Ireland. For one thing, she both does and does not buy into the mythologised notion of travelling west—in her case sailing to post-apocalyptic Ireland from Sweden—to find some kind of idealised version of the country. She is happy to go no farther inland than the Wicklow hills on the east coast, and even seems taken with the faded Victorian—read: English—architectural and social heritage found in the town of Bray, but, like Orpen, she also offers the reader memories of the far west, in her case the country as it was prior to the disaster. Initially she seems wise to the romanticisation, even commodification of the west as an ‘idyllic spot’ that is ‘picturesque, tourist-packed’ and ‘intensely marketed’, and is, for instance, contemptuous of her mother declaring that ‘Dublin is not Ireland!’. Her mother ‘was wrong, of course,’ Robin says, maintaining her unsentimental assessment even as her description of her in-laws’ home in Kerry —the only truly charming house I’d ever been in, in Ireland’—lapses into a prelapsarian fugue dramatically at odds with her final analysis of Ireland before the nuclear incident as neither a safe nor civilised place. Her in-laws live instead in a ‘small house in Dunquin, a national park on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. Their constant view was the Blasket Islands’—impossible to separate from that most mythologised of all Gaelic signifiers, the seanchaí Peig Sayers—‘and they were also as far west as they could be, which seemed to satisfy some deep-seated occidental aspiration’. Here her husband’s parents, transplants from Northern Ireland during the Troubles, take up milking goats and weaving on a loom. It is a version of the west filled with ‘tourists, Irish, drinking, talking, not working,’ and one that Robin dismisses as being like ‘an exhibit in a folk museum for most of the year’.

Yet when Robin declares that she will excavate ‘the debris of the [east coast] Irish way of life’ she commits, perhaps unknowingly, to challenging another kind of caricature. She swaps the west coast’s organic vegetables and home-made yoghurt for an east coast upper-middle-class fantasy of ‘culture and refinement,’ one announced by bay windows and hand-thrown pottery by name designers and frequent visits to the theatre. The excavated house in Bray is as ‘old, spacious, and gracious’ as one might imagine a solicitor’s home to be, and so, preserved beneath its blanket of ash, at first seems to affirm the stereotype of east coast prosperity and bureaucratic elitism. Nonetheless, Robin reports that its ‘many signs of affluence’ are in fact combined with ‘great shabbiness’. Evidence found in the Bray house further documents the social and interpersonal malaise of an urbane family that was ‘nevertheless not very well off’ either economically or emotionally. Their lives compare poorly to those of Robin’s in-laws who, while they ‘never learned to be at ease’ in Kerry, remained happily together and even found themselves making money that they ‘neither needed nor particularly wanted’. By comparison, the inhabitants of the Bray house were engaged in an acrimonious separation at the time of the nuclear disaster, with Robin (though her conclusions and generalisations are often suspect) believing that at least one partner was having an affair. Her earlier trivialising of her west of Ireland experiences are consequently the most positive things she has to say about the country in a final report that decries pre-apocalypse Ireland as a place of ‘poverty, violence, and ignorance,’ torn apart ‘by internal strife and beset by lack of self-knowledge’. A certain amount of this can of course be attributed to how Robin’s mental state has become more unstable as she completes her report (in contrast to, say, Orpen’s increased self-assurance and agency at the conclusion to Last Ones Left Alive); however, it is difficult to ignore the book’s fictional newspaper headlines through which Ní Dhuibhne extrapolates from contemporaneous concerns to detail how ‘One half of population is now living in poverty’ and ‘World pollution [is] worsening’. Many of the other papers Robin discovers bemoan issues of political and environmental collapse that may have seemed science-fictional thirty years ago but that now, in the loose ballpark of the novel’s setting of ‘20–’ (with ‘19–’ being ‘more than 10 years’ in the past), seem stunningly prescient on the author’s part.

One hopes that the worst of Davis-Goff’s predictions for Ireland are nowhere near as accurate as those Ní Dhuibhne makes in The Bray House. Though of course it is the allegorical depiction of the present—that being science fiction’s most relevant and powerful tool—where Last Ones Left Alive lands its most damning blows. When Orpen, for example, enacts the traditional coming-of-age ritual of fleeing rural Ireland for the big city (something the middle-aged owners of the Bray house did in their own youth), Davis-Goff is quick to offer a reversal of the expected narrative. Orpen almost immediately encounters a small group fleeing in the opposite direction, a young family essentially priced out of the capital by the physical and psychological costs of abuse and (it is strongly implied) fascistic governance that exist as the end result of systematically degrading present-day policies such as austerity and direct provision. The novel’s scepticism of bureaucratic mis-governance is further apparent in the questionable tactics of Phoenix City, probably the truest dystopian element of the novel, where it is suggested that human survival depends on forced breeding programmes and the militarisation of remaining society (the shelves of the Bray house’s solicitor, stocked with volumes of dry parliamentary papers, seem quaint by comparison). Indeed, the endemic nature of the Skrake across rural Ireland despite the presence of a technologically advanced, if declining society of survivors (they appear to have lost elements of their industrial base) suggests that the Phoenix City ruling class is invested, perhaps literally, in not extending their safe-zone or exterminating the menace entirely (especially when it seems, from the final chapters, that it is easy to attract large groups of Skrake to a single location and, with skill and teamwork, eliminate them). Yet, just like Robin, Orpen’s perspective on the Irish east/west divide evolves and assumes more nuance with each new experience. She can no more return to her Slanbeg childhood than Robin can return to the Dingle Peninsula of her in-laws, and nor does she necessarily want to. Rescued by the warrior Banshees, the novel’s conclusion sees her willingly whisked off to a world which her parents fled. Her arc in Last Ones Left Alive sees her tear apart the zombified tropes associated with literary depictions of the west of Ireland. One looks forward to seeing what Davis-Goff does with those of Dublin in any follow up.


Dr. Val Nolan is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. He has published articles in Science Fiction Studies, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and Irish Studies Review. His fiction has appeared in Year’s Best Science Fiction, Interzone, and the ‘Futures’ page of NatureYou can read Val’s bio here on the CSFF site for more. 


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