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?
The Last is one of the most original books I’ve read in a while. It’s the end of the world. Major cities have been wiped out by nuclear bombs and twenty survivors are stranded in a remote hotel in Switzerland. The group doesn’t know if there are other survivors or what has become of society. One day, a survivor, Jon Keller, a historian from the US, finds the body of a young girl in one of the hotel’s water tanks and immediately becomes suspicious of everyone. He immediately begins investigating her murder and starts to find out as much as he can about the other survivors in the hotel.
The book is told from Jon’s perspective in an epistolary format which gives it a didactic quality particularly at the start of the book. As a historian, Jon documents everything for future generations, if there are any. Jon becomes obsessed with finding the killer of the young girl as he becomes worried that there is a murderer in their midst. At times, his obsession becomes frustrating as he tries to find a killer when the world has been decimated by nuclear warfare but he tells us that it’s at least something to occupy his mind.
Jon’s voice is the most striking aspect of the book. Post-apocalyptic narratives are usually told from the perspective of a survivor in the midst of the chaos and are usually full of high tension and action as the hero tries to survive in a war zone. Here, for the most part, the story is told from the perspective of a survivor that is nowhere near the bomb sites so other tensions come to light. As a result, the narrative is often introverted and reflective and we learn a lot about Jon’s life. He is able to reflect on his life and his relationships with his wife and two kids and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see them again.
The tension in the hotel largely comes from the interactions between the survivors as there is a mix of nationalities, languages, races, ages, and genders. As Jon is one of only two Americans, there’s speculation about whose government is responsible for the bombing and why they occurred and many residents assume that America is to blame. Without the internet, nobody in the hotel knows anything for sure. This suspicion pervades the book and permeates throughout the residents as everyone seems uneasy in each others company. The residents are also highly suspicious of people outside the hotel, if there are any survivors and much of the action is a result of the residents leaving the hotel in search of food and medical supplies. Most of the suspense comes, not from finding the killer of the young girl but from finding out what happened to the people outside the hotel, how many people were killed, what cities were destroyed, and what has happened to society and those that did survive. The residents of the hotel postulate on what might have happened and look for any signs of life in the surrounding areas.
The most frightening aspect of the book is that it’s clear that this takes place today and not in some distant dystopian future. The book is well-written and engaging and leads us to question society, what would happen if it broke down, and the existence of morality in such an event. The Last is largely uncategorisable as it mixes the crime, thriller, horror, and dystopian sci-fi genres. It also provides a surprisingly effective and deftly relevant social commentary on contemporary politics, international tensions, and our reliance on technology and social media.
About the author
Hanna Jameson wrote her first book at the age of seventeen. Paul Rees of Q Magazine described her as writing like ‘an angel on speed’. She has worked for the NHS and travelled the USA, Japan and Europe, developing a particular interest in the US, which led to her studying for a BA in American History. The Last is her first novel for Penguin.