An excellent post-apocalyptic mystery novel
BREAKING: Nuclear weapon detonates over Washington
Historian Jon Keller is on a trip to Switzerland when the world ends. As the lights go out on civilisation, he wishes he had a way of knowing whether his wife, Nadia, and their two daughters are still alive. More than anything, Jon wishes he hadn’t ignored Nadia’s last message.
Twenty people remain in Jon’s hotel. Far from the nearest city and walled in by towering trees, they wait, they survive.
Then one day, the body of a young girl is found. It’s clear she has been murdered. Which means that someone in the hotel is a killer.
As paranoia descends, Jon decides to investigate. But how far is he willing to go in pursuit of justice? And what kind of justice can he hope for, when society as he knows it no longer exists?
It’s been some time since I last read a post-apocalyptic novel, after what felt like a glut in the early 2010s (some of them excellent, but ultimately I think I read too many). Hanna Jameson’s The Last received a fair bit of pre-publication buzz, and I was happy to interview the author. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into The Last, but what I found was an excellent, thought-provoking and quite gripping mystery. I very much enjoyed this.
Jon, our chronicler, is stuck at a hotel with 19 other survivors. They don’t know what’s happening in the cities, in America, in Europe, or anywhere else. Their worlds have shrunk down to the hotel and its immediate environs. Jon and a couple other survivors stumble upon the drowned body of a young girl. They can’t figure out who she is, which sends Jon down a bit of a rabbit hole: he becomes obsessed with the mystery of this girl, who she was, how she got to the hotel, why she doesn’t seem to have come with any of the survivors (or others). In part, this is an attempt to keep busy, and to distract himself from the ramifications of his current situation and the scale of global change that he and any other survivor now has to confront and handle.
I really enjoyed Jameson’s approach to the post-apocalyptic setting. While gripping, the novel is not frenetic, nor sensationalist. Through Jon’s (unreliable) narration of what happens at the hotel and among the survivors, we see various reactions. Some suffer from depression or resignation. Some seem to rise to the occasion (in a way, this includes Jon). The author doesn’t spend much time explaining what actually happened — we get some bits of information here and there, but Jameson doesn’t spend really anytime building the narrative of why the apocalypse happened. I appreciated this, because it allowed the book to focus far more on the “now”.
What is clear is that many blame the US and its president (like many novels written and published post-2016, there are clear indications that it’s at least a Trump-like figure). At one point, Jon explains how this has effected the dynamic at the hotel:
“I’ve also come to realize that the non-Americans are stockpiling resentment. They blame us, Tomi and me, for what happened. They look at us and see one person who had voted for this to happen and another who hadn’t done enough to stop it.”
Jameson does include some good political, social and cultural commentary and analysis, but it doesn’t dominate, nor does it get in the way of the overall story.
Because it is a novel about events following a catastrophic event (or events), rather than a zombie plague (or other trope of that ilk), the novel is far more about the characters and their reactions to their changed world. The Last doesn’t wallow in navel-gazing or woe-is-me introspection, although some of the characters would clearly like to do so. Instead, they pull together and apart, as they try to navigate how to operate now. We see the gradual erosion of norms, the establishment of new norms and guidelines. We see how situations can dictate and alter behaviour. For example, at one point they need to consider how to address justice. Here’s what Jon ‘writes’ in his chronicle:
“I considered making a point about utilitarianism; that any vote that came out in favor of imprisonment was too flawed to be taken seriously, because the interests of the group dictated that to waste resources on a criminal would be an act of collective self-harm. But I argued myself down before I said anything. If we discounted any alternative, then we became a society – albeit a small one – that punished people for any kind of wrongdoing with death. Even if it was necessary, I wasn’t sure I wanted us to become that. In another life, I’d been against the death penalty.”
It would be quite easy to write a fair bit more about the novel, but I’ll resist. I was swept up by the story and Jameson’s prose. It’s one of the best-written novels I’ve read in a while, and I certainly understand the pre-publication buzz. It’s rare when a novel completely lives up to the hype (especially for someone as difficult as I am), but The Last did.
Overall, therefore, I really enjoyed The Last. It offers everything I could want from an excellent post-apocalyptic novel. It’s thoughtful, non-sensationalist, very well-written, and gripping. Definitely recommended.
“The end of the world is a fairly comforting concept, because – in theory – we wouldn’t have to survive it. Maybe what’s been fucking us up, more than anything, hasn’t been finding a way to cope with the world ending but finding a way to cope with the fact that it didn’t.”
Also on CR: Interview with Hanna Jameson (2019)