This was Round 2 of my ongoing “what’s going in in the world of Irish science fiction?” quest. (Round 1 was here.) First off: great title, no? I was instantly intrigued, especially with the description, and I liked this weird sense I was getting of the post-apocalypse as a site of feminist possibility rather than just endless misogyny and threatened sexual violence. (Sigh.)
The premise is straightforward: Orpen lives with her mother and her mother’s partner, Maeve, on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland. The island has the ruins of a village, but the two women and the girl are the only ones who live there now. Occasionally Mam and Maeve go to the mainland to search for supplies, leaving young Orpen on the island by herself to tend the chickens and the garden until they return. She can’t come with them because the island is crawling with skrakes, which are zombie-like creatures (let’s be honest: they’re zombies, of the Fast Zombie variety), and she is not yet fully trained, has not yet proven her grit. (And Maeve and Mam have been training her: to fight, to control her body, etc.) But of course, calamity strikes, and the novel is told in split storylines that flash back to life on the island, and the present, where Orpen is struggling to work her way across an apocalyptic Ireland with a dying Maeve in a wheelbarrow, searching for Phoenix City, a place that Maeve has always warned her never to go to.
I’ll be honest: zombie stories aren’t 100% my jam. I’ve tried out a fair few, both novels and films, and mostly, I can leave them. But I was hoping this might rise above my past experiences, though I admit that maybe I misled myself in my own mind, because “skrake” looked a lot on the page like “Skriker,” which is a bizarre play with a bizarre antagonist of the same name by Caryl Churchill and I wanted some of that dizzying weirdness in that landscape. And it’s never quite that weird. I’m not sure why Davis-Goff calls her monsters skrakes instead of zombies; like much in her setting, it’s never really quite explained or delved into, and the book feels a bit like a tease, setting up various alluring things without ever quite exploring them in depth. It’s hard to tell who Orpen is when she’s not fighting her way across zombie-infested Ireland; she doesn’t seem to have much more to her fighting and her insatiable hunger to experience anything other than her home. We never quite know what happens, or why Phoenix City is such a bad place for women (where literacy has died out, it seems, for most everyone) and yet also has a badass all-woman zombie fighting force called banshees (again, cool, right? I wish we learned more about them).
There’s immense potential here, but it goes pretty much where you expect, and ends about how you might suppose, given most other zombie apocalypse stories. There’s a flicker of tenuous hope, but also the zombie problem isn’t solved, and Orpen’s future is an unwritten book that we won’t be reading, which is fine, but also…I was just left hungry at the end, and it wasn’t quite the feminist take on the zombie apocalypse that I’d hoped it might be (look, if your choices as a woman are breeder or banshee, and you’re maybe illiterate either way, the patriarchy is still clearly alive and well–though at least Orpen is never threatened with sexual violence in this narrative). It is a bit different by virtue of being very firmly set within women’s experiences and perspectives, and in Ireland, so those are probably its strongest selling points, but ultimately, I preferred what Sarah Maria Griffin did in Spare and Found Parts a bit more; that novel had a more evocative atmosphere and taste of dreamy weirdness that never quite surfaced here.
If you’re connoisseur of zombie stories or post-apocalyptic fiction, give this baby a whirl; if neither of those is really your jam, I don’t know that this will be, either. Not sorry I read it, and the bright side is that I am very curious to see what Davis-Goff does next.