‘Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.‘
American historian Jon Keller is having a relaxed breakfast in a Swiss hotel, visiting for a conference. He ignores a text from his wife Nadia, planning to respond later. Then someone’s phone buzzes. Nuclear war has broken out. News feeds eventually peter out, batteries run flat, mobile signal fades. Not knowing if his family are still alive or if help will ever arrive, Jon remains in the hotel with twenty other survivors, documenting his days in his journal. Then they go up to the roof and find the body of a small girl in the water tank. The Last is billed as And Then There Were None meets The Shining – isolated in the middle of nowhere with no end in sight, paranoia sets in. Is there really a killer in their midst?
In Steve Toltz’s Quicksand, his protagonist Aldo remarks on the ridiculous optimism of the human race that the ‘post-apocalyptic’ genre is so popular. We actually believe that there will be something post the apocalypse. That comment resurfaces in my mind whenever I read a piece of dystopian fiction. What does this version of the world’s end say about us? There is often an element of escapism, a desire to shed off the pressures of our everyday existence and to embrace a more primal existence. Indeed, The Last makes rather self-conscious reference to a number of other versions such as The Road and The Day of the Triffids. However, The Last still managers to be rather distinctive in its detached vision of humanity after civilisation has collapsed. This is the apocalypse of the smartphone age.
Every so often Jameson allows Jon to regain Internet access, something which he seizes with a fervour akin to a parched man finding water. He logs on to Facebook and notes how few people have clicked to mark themselves as ‘safe’ from the nuclear attack. What is most striking is how difficult the cast find it to get the smartphone mindset out of their heads. When two characters disagree over something, one of them defends their viewpoint saying, ‘Google it’. As Jon sets out to investigate the death of the girl in the water tank, he makes a note to look up information on something before realising immediately that he has no resources with which to do so. Access to that ultimate arbiter may have completely evaporated but the mental reflex clings on stubbornly.
The hotel setting was a compelling one. A group of strangers, brought together by chance and with little in common. The dramatic location – by a lake, near a forest, far from any major settlements and so cut off from finding out what has befallen the rest of the world. There is a spookiness about it too, the thirteen floors and nearly a thousand rooms. Who can see for sure what lies within? Added to that, the hotel apparently has a sinister history, with suicides and unexplained deaths and even ‘the occasional murder’. Jameson seems to be making conscious reference to The Shining here. Jon writes dispassionately of the various guests who lose hope and take their own lives in the early days after the attacks and the reader understands that the journal is his own method of survival, of holding off despair.
The Last has come in for criticism from a number of reviews because it fails to sit comfortably in a particular genre. Despite the alarming discovery of the child’s corpse in the water tank, this is not really a murder mystery. It centres more on the psychology of living through the collapse of humanity. In this respect, Jon Keller makes for an interesting choice of protagonist. He is not a particularly likeable or even reliable narrator. As a historian, he claims to want to preserve the record but early on we suspect him of being like Winston Churchill – determined that history will be kind to him as he intends to write it. Initial impressions of Jon begin more favourably; the de-facto doctor in the group notes that Jon always volunteers whenever things need to be done. He tries to help those who have appointed themselves in charge. Over time however, other facts slip out which hint at a more unsavoury personality. While it is no doubt a creative choice by Jameson to place a weak man at her novel’s core, skewering the tendency for heroics in dystopian fiction, it does make the reader feel less invested in the story. The final verdict on his character comes in the closing pages and is fairly devastating.
The whole feel of the story was strangely sterile. Even when the characters stage an impromptu trial, ultimately deciding on capital punishment for the defendant, there is a lack of palpable emotion. Jon notes almost at one remove that he is surprised to find himself voting for the death penalty, having always been against it in his previous life. He thinks it would be nice to be able to share this case study with his colleagues back at the university. I can see that all of this was deliberate on Jameson’s part, but it led to a novel that felt emotionally distant.
Marketed in a similar way to The Power and with a recommendation from Emily St Mandel (author of Station Eleven), I had high hopes that this would be a book that I would love. Despite its fascinating premise, Jameson fumbles the conclusion so I finished The Last feeling underwhelmed. The murder mystery is never resolved in a satisfying way and none of the characters are designed to resonate with the reader. There are powerful moments within The Last which had the potential to be truly iconic within the dystopian genre but ultimately the book falls short. Part character study, part whodunnit, part apocalyptic thriller, The Last tries to be many things and so finishes master of none.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Penguin UK on January 24th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, General, Thrillers, Suspense, Science Fiction, Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Literary, Psychological, Technological, Crime
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