Summer is the season of heat and light and beach reads, but for me it’s also when the dark and spookies start settling in, and I like to reach for something more chaotic. And so I came by Hanna Jameson’s The Last, a suspenseful apocalyptic mystery set in an atmospheric old hotel. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I would have to get my hands on a copy.
In the novel, Jon is staying at a large hotel in Switzerland for a conference when nuclear war suddenly wipes out many of the world’s major cities. The hotel guests (including Jon) spiral into a panic; many leave to catch planes that won’t be flying to return to families that no longer exist. Jon remains at the hotel with several strangers who opt to wait for help to arrive. When a dead girl is found in the hotel’s water supply, Jon takes charge of investigating the obvious murder as a means to keep busy. He suspects that the killer is still living among them. As life goes on for the few that remain, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, what is real, and where to draw the line between right and wrong.
“Is this it? I mean, for humanity. Am I the last person alive making notes on the end of the world? I’m not sure whether I would rather already be dead.”
Part dystopia, part murder mystery, part character study, part political/social commentary, part psychological suspense, and part horror novel, this is a book full of surprises. The essential end of the world provides an eerie backdrop, while Jon’s quest to hunt down an unknown murderer lends structure and plot to the novel. The tension of this story does not derive from a burning need to win justice for this girl (most of the characters are surprisingly indifferent to her death) as much as from a desire to uncover the secrets of the other guests stranded in the hotel, and to discover what extremes they might be driven to in the absence of recognized law and authority. The cast of suspects is large, and red herrings abound. I would be beyond impressed by anyone who manages to guess the true culprit before reading the final sequence- the reveal requires a certain level of suspended disbelief, but it does win points for unpredictability. Furthermore, this desperate world full of lies and radiation is made all the more compelling by how closely Jameson ties this nuclear war to our real world’s current political climate.
Though the story is formatted as a record of events written by Jon, he is open about his own biases and faulty memories. Despite the fact that his writing the story at all means he has already survived the dangers being described, the tension of the story is not lessened by this inherent evidence of his safety. Jameson makes it clear that anyone else- friend or foe- is fair game, and there’s a frightening psychological aspect behind every small discovery. The unflinching look at the morally-gray heart of humanity prevents stagnation. Crimes and disagreements within the hotel require the group to make tough life-or-death decisions. There is so much depth behind what is, on the surface, already a dark and captivating premise.
“Existing isn’t everything.”
The characters all come unique and fully formed, though learning their pasts and motives does not prepare the reader for anything these people might try next. But let’s take a moment to look closer at our narrator, Jon. In a story brimming with remarkable characters, I was struck by the unfortunate impression that Jon is the most boring, straightforward person we could possibly follow through this ordeal. Jameson does some interesting things with his characterization, making him receptive to feminism and then throwing him into situations that require him to choose between actively fighting for what is fair or settling for what is easy. His hunts for a child killer stems from an urge to do what is right, but also from a fear of finding himself idle. He is far from a perfect human- and yet, for all the hints that he’s made bad choices in the past, I expected something more extreme than the history that is finally revealed. For all of his flaws though, the biggest obstacle for me was simply that he never stopped feeling like a man written by a woman (an issue that I have only ever experienced in the opposite scenario, finding discomfort in female characters obviously written by men), and I was never quite certain why Jameson chose to make him the lead character. Any one of them could have kept an end-days record. But in the end, this mild confusion wasn’t enough to hold me back from enjoying every single page.
“The only meaning we might have left as a species- indeed, the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning- is the small acts of human kindness we show one another, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I’ve mostly forgotten to be kind.”
My only other small complaint involves a few inconsistencies that weren’t weeded out before publication. For instance, an entry for one of the most eventful days at the hotel begins with Jon saying that he’s been busy and is writing from the following day. Later within the account of the same day, he mentions taking a break from the group to go up to his room and write the events of the day up to that point. There are a few other details like this that don’t quite match up, but obviously this isn’t a major issue. The plot aligns properly.
As a side note, if you’re a reader who enjoys juxtaposition, let me confirm that The Last pairs perfectly with the first third or so of Stephen King’s The Stand. Though the former features a nuclear “final war” and the later a 99% effective superflu, both are apocalyptic novels that explore life for the few after the deaths of the many. It’s incredible to compare two strong writers’ ideas of the end of life as we know it, and the shreds of humanity that are left. Apparently the answer to “how do I make an apocalyptic novel reading experience more perfect?” is to pick up a second apocalyptic novel.
“I think it was Stephen King who said that the sum of all human fear is just a door left slightly ajar.”
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. For most of this read, I expected that I would rate The Last as a 4, but once I reached the end I couldn’t think of a single flaw substantial enough to hold it back from a 5. Throughout the week that I read this novel, I was always enthused to pick it up again and find out what would happen next. It was engaging on the surface, and memorable for its hidden depths. It’ll stick with me for a long time, I’m sure. I would recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter or Ling Ma’s Severance; though a bit different than both, it’s exciting and introspective on a level that I think will appeal to the same demographic.
Have you read this one? Do you plan to?
The Literary Elephant