Disclaimer: An advanced digital copy of this novel was provided to me by Atria Books in exchange for my honest review.
Murder mystery meets nuclear apocalypse in Hanna Jameson’s bold literary debut The Last. The result is a novel that’s as much a commentary on political divide as it is a tale of chilling disaster.
Stanford history professor Jon Keller is staying at a remote hotel in Switzerland when nuclear war breaks out, destroying major cities and shutting down internet and phone connection around the world. Unable to communicate with or travel to his family, Jon opts to remain at the hotel with a small group of survivors who quickly establish a hierarchy, a food rationing plan and a series of recon missions to see if anyone – or anything – has survived.
Jon’s already distressing situation takes a turn for the worse when the body of a young girl is found in one of the hotel’s water tanks. He becomes obsessed with finding the killer, and begins to dig into the mysterious lives of his fellow hotel-dwellers, digging up unsavory information about those around him, and even the history of the hotel itself, that could put his life in danger.
Told from Jon’s perspective in a journal style, The Last offer a glimpse into the end of the world through the eyes of a man who has dedicated his life to studying the past. Now, with almost nothing of the past left, Jon must look to the future and decide what kind of person he wants to be in a society with no laws or regulations.
Calling a book “ambitious” often implies it has come short of whatever goal it set out to achieve, and there’s a bit of that here. The Last attempts to combine a checklist of genres while also pushing a politically-driven narrative, and although it comes across as coherent and timely, it occasionally compromises plot in favour of shock value. Prolonged arguments between Jon and the only other American at the hotel, a young woman named Tomi, about their political leanings add little to the overall plot, but anchor it down in a bog of polarization that feels forced and unnecessary.
The real strength of Jameson’s writing is in capturing the heightened emotions of her characters and the tense atmosphere present throughout the hotel. Each individual still residing in the ancient building is going through the same personal turmoil as Jon, and yet we can’t get into their minds to see what they’re thinking. It’s only through Jon’s descriptions of their actions that readers see their behaviour and get a sense of what it is they’re experiencing.
Jon himself is an interesting vessel through which to convey a story about the end of the world. In his late thirties, Jon is not yet old but no longer young. When the end of the world sets in he reverts in many ways to youthful tendencies – abusing drugs and alcohol and engaging in passionate debates about life, love and politics. Sometimes it’s hard to connect the leading historian and father of two with the hard-partying frat boy seeping through. And this seems to be the point of Jameson’s story – there’s no right reaction to the end of the world.
The Last is an entertaining and interesting novel that will appeal to lovers of dystopian fiction and chilling mysteries. It’s been described as a combination of Stephen King and Agatha Christie, and in many ways that description fits. If you enjoyed Shari Lapena’s An Unwanted Guest or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None or M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts you’ll definitely want to have a go at this apocalyptic novel.