The Last Woman, by John Bemrose

The Last Woman, by John Bemrose

John Bemrose’s The Last Woman focuses on the intertwined lives of an artist, her lawyer husband and her former lover, an Aboriginal community leader in northern Ontario where the artist’s family has had a cottage for many years. The book is thoughtful and carefully crafted. However, Bemrose’s attempt to present all three points in this triangle in as balanced and evenhanded a manner as possible results in the book being overly internal, self-absorbed and ponderous. To one extent or another, each character is emotionally paralyzed at the juncture when Bemrose examines them, and it neither makes for compelling sustained reading nor ultimately rouses much sympathy or empathy for any of them. If in fact the novel is trying to surreptitiously skew towards sympathy for one specific character – as the title and a titular painting might suggest – it doesn’t work.

The book’s descriptions of the natural world and human encroachment on it are very good, even heart tugging in places. I felt much more sympathy for Mother Nature as the “last woman” than for anyone else as the book wound up … and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Bemrose’s previous novel, The Island Walkers, was engrossing and engaging. Even with the wider cast of characters compared to his current novel, Bemrose still made each of them authentic and made the reader care about them. Despite some of the weaknesses of The Last Woman, I know I’ll be interested in visiting his explorations of the human and natural world again in future.

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