4 stars out of 5
Whether or not the author intended it, anyone reading this book who is at all familiar with the popular CBS TV show "Survivor" is bound to see the similarities. A dozen contestants in a TV show titled "In the Dark" are stranded in the wilderness (albeit accompanied by cameramen, a host and "experts" who make occasional surreptitious appearances). As in "Survivor," these contestants face arduous physical and mental challenges - both team and individual - in an attempt to earn rewards and move on toward the winner-takes-all ending. Readers get to know the each contestant backwards, forwards and sideways so they can cheer on their favorites and form opinions as to who will take home the big prize.
Each contestant here gets a nickname as well; for instance, Waitress has that job in real life, and Zoo works with animals. The girl named Zoo (yes, the Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue," inexplicably popped into my mind every time I read her name) is established early on as the main character; chapters switch back and forth from the group's activities during filming to those focusing on her alone. For the record, she's not a girl, but rather a grown woman who left her husband to test her mettle before settling down in hopes of getting pregnant - never realizing just how challenging the "game" will be. There's a code phrase contestants can say if and when they want out; but even though she considers that option when the going gets exceptionally tough, Zoo vows to forge ahead no matter what.
But then, the game seems to take on a new and different life of its own, moving away from supervised chaos to something far more sinister. Now in the middle of the wilderness - exhausted, hungry and apparently all alone - it's almost impossible for Zoo to discern what's real and what isn't. But her ability to tell the difference may well determine whether she lives or dies.
This is a well-written, very engaging book, although I admit to getting bogged down around the halfway point. That, I believe, is a direct result of the inevitable comparison with the TV show. You see, my husband and I were faithful "Survivor" viewers for the first couple of seasons. After that, it was same old, same old, so we'd just watch the first couple of episodes to see who was who, and then skip to the final show to learn who won (in fact, we do exactly the same with other contest reality shows like "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol" and, for that matter, NBA games). So once I was familiar with the characters here, I wasn't surprised when I suddenly wanted to flip to the end.
But happily, I fought the urge, because not long thereafter the scenes began to morph into a different and in many ways more compelling story. The journey through the final days was a bit more rushed than I'd have liked (but on the other hand, the ending hinted at the possibility of a sequel). But all told, this is an outstanding effort, especially for a debut novel - and I expect it will do very well. Many thanks to the publisher and author, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for a review.
The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (Ballantine Books, July 2016); 304 pp.)