These are the days of dystopia, aren’t they? We’ve watched or re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. Hanna Jameson gives us When the Wind Blows meets Alive with a smattering of The Village. That probably sounds appalling but The Last is an ambitious and intriguing novel.
The premise is that nuclear war has broken out. Twenty survivors are holed up in a Swiss hotel. One or more of them could be a murderer. So one way of looking at this novel is that it’s an apocalyptic locked room mystery. But in some ways the murder is one of the least interesting things about The Last: it’s needed because it helps us watch the narrator try to react to his surroundings and explore the characters of his fellow hotel inmates, and this is where the novel excels.
The narrator, Jon Keller, isn’t a sympathetic fellow but such is the stupor that hangs over the hotel (by page 61, 53 days have passed since the explosion) that he quickly assumes a leadership role within the survivor group. There’s an awful lot of rattling around in this large and mainly empty building. There’s a smattering of the supernatural which helps us explore the psychological effects of the trauma that the group has experienced. The group dynamics are interesting. I am surprised from time to time that they play out as they do. Partly that’s because I’d assume a larger role for the nuclear fallout. But there is a strong theme of being cut off from information: the internet is down and this is a proxy for what it is like to exist outside civilisation. Facebook and Twitter take on the role of public information sources.
There’s a strong suggestion that nuclear war has arisen primarily because of bad voting choices in the United States. Jameson doesn’t really pursue this – rightly in my view – because I think she is more interested in pursuing the idea that things have had consequences but now they may not. How should you behave when you have had a rupture from your family, your career and your wider identity? When you may have no future, what is your relationship with your past? Is it a cause for liberation and renewal? Where does grief come in – and regret? How do you define a morality for a group literally fighting for survival? These are the questions that Jameson has us consider. She has her characters smoke and drink and couple up – and kill. We as readers watch and wonder what we’d do in a similar situation.
The twist at the end isn’t perhaps what we would expect. Not all Jon’s foreboding turned out to be grounded in fact. Some parts of the plot are resolved but the kick is placed more firmly within the wider themes of the novel. What we don’t learn, and are left to guess, is what the long-term effects of this time without a future might be once the past, present and future reconfigure themselves. I’m glad Jameson has taken that approach. It makes this a novel that lives on in our thoughts, long after The Last page.
Thanks to Viking for the review copy.
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