The Last by Hanna Jameson
Published by Viking, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
On paper, an apocalyptic-nuclear-survival-story-meets-murder-mystery-meets-social-and-political-commentary shouldn’t work. Somehow, Hanna Jameson pulls it off, resulting in one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had for a long time.
The concept is sort of brilliantly bonkers. When international nuclear war is triggered without warning, major cities are simultaneously wiped out across the globe, killing millions, cutting off all means of travel and communication, and leaving countries without government. Aware that the devastation, fallout, and desperate fellow survivors will all pose a threat, a group of around twenty people decide to hunker down in the remote Swiss hotel they had been staying in at the time of the incident. Scavenging for food, rationing medical supplies, worrying about radiation poisoning, and avoiding conflict with other potentially dangerous groups all become part of their daily life. But when a body is found soon after, our protagonist becomes convinced that one of them may also be a murderer.
The reason this book can be so many things at once and still work as a cohesive whole is that Jameson gives equal attention to each aspect of the complex narrative. Though this is an utterly engrossing, page-turning read, there is so much depth to examine. The hotel setting not only harks back to the gothic undertones of the golden era of crime, but it allows for a believably international cast of characters. This, in turn, allows Jameson to explore the racial and political tensions that emerge in times of conflict, and the blame culture that can so often lead to division and mistrust.
Without ever having to name names, Jameson is unflinching in her critique of the current political climate, and the alarming future that could await should power remain in the wrong hands. Indeed, the plot is pitched in such a way as to be at once grippingly eccentric, and frighteningly plausible. Without getting spoilery, she also manages to seamlessly weave powerful commentary on several pertinent social issues into the narrative, such as women’s reproductive rights, and the attempt to silence victims who come forward in the wake of a crime.
The murder mystery element is as intriguing to read as the survival aspect is enthralling, but I have to admit I wasn’t completely satisfied by the way that particular plot point wrapped up. I remained hooked by it throughout, but the outcome felt a little far-fetched and over-constructed. This was the only factor holding me back from a five-star rating. However, I can ultimately forgive it, as the crime element was, in reality, a means through which Jameson could explore the book’s primary theme, which is how far we will go to preserve justice, even in the most desperate of times. With tensions rising, characters pitted against each other, and new dangers emerging every day, the author makes us consider what kind of person we would want to be in the face of such extremes. Which parts of society are a construct, and which are defining characteristics of humanity? Which laws, conventions and morals are worth holding onto until the bitter end? Does one life matter when the whole world is in peril?
The book is framed as a written documentation of the events from our protagonist’s point-of-view. As a historian (at the hotel for a conference), he wishes to preserve his and others’ stories for possible future generations. This not only brings in a thread about the importance of documenting experiences (particularly in tangible forms, should disaster ever befall the internet), but we increasingly realise how flawed he is. This leaves us to question just how reliable he is as a narrator, with Jameson even managing to incorporate a subtle metaphor about the toxicity of holding on to secrets. This cleverly reaches a head in the book’s climax, adding a whole other layer to our interpretation of key points throughout the story, and proving that none of us are wholly good or bad.
Honestly, I was floored that a book so gripping and fun to read could also have so much to say, by masking such complexity and nuance. Having powered through the entire Women’s Prize longlist recently, only to be disappointed by the short list, I had been feeling on the verge of a reading slump for a couple of weeks; burnt out and lacking motivation. This book was exactly what I needed to get my spark back. Though it’s just shy of 400 pages, I sped through the whole thing in a few sittings. I know I will look back on the reading experience with huge fondness and gratitude. There really is a lot to be said for finding the right book at just the right time.
If you’d like to read The Last, you can pick up a copy by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!