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?
With a jacket quote from Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, and my general affection for dystopian and post apocalyptic themes, The Last appealed from the outset, but provided a curious, though none the less rewarding reading experience…
Focussing on the disparate guests at a hotel in Switzerland, suddenly cast adrift into a world of confusion and fear. It’s funny that for the most part I really didn’t perceive this book as a crime thriller, set as it is in the wake of a stream of nuclear events across the world. Although there is a crime, the murder of a young girl, within the narrative, at times it felt almost superfluous, to the clear, defined thrust of the book, examining how a group of relative strangers can co-exist and survive when isolated from the world. I must confess that I could have happily read this book without this facet of the story, and much more interesting was the way that these strangers then had to try and formulate themselves into one cohesive social group, and the fractures and difficulties this clearly brought to the surface. In much the same way as say, The Walking Dead, becomes really much more focussed on the relationships between, and development of individuals, so The Last formed a similar impression, with how Jameson manipulates her characters in this strange and fearful world.
By choosing the hotel as the setting for the book, Jameson immediately had great scope for confining a wide ranging group of people in one space, all living, working or temporarily residing there for numerous different reasons. Also this is a perfect organic setting for throwing together not only men, women and children, but people with vastly differing lifestyles, opinions, beliefs, nationalities and personal characteristics, and Jameson quite rightly milks this to the nth degree. What this then produces is a smorgasbord of people who by their very characteristics should not be able to co-exist, but as their individual survival depends on this have to learn how to, and the ramifications for those who don’t. Consequently, there is conflict, violence, moments of personal disclosure, self destruction, and shifting notions of justice and morality, that really is the bedrock of the book, and which holds the reader’s attention throughout. I thought the scope of characters, and their behaviour under pressure was excellent throughout, and the very real human frailties and doubt that haunt even the strongest characters was always measured and truthful. As some characters find inner strength, previously not known to them, to cope and survive, Jameson never shies away from those that fail to rally, but balances her other character’s responses from those quick to judge, and those that harbour similar emotional fears. Jameson has a complete balance in her male and female characters, exposing their strengths and weaknesses equally and how their lives previous to this devastating event, goes a long way in forming their responses to it and to those around them. There’s also a dark playfulness about the less attractive features she attributes to some, and the irritation that others can arouse in the reader, which are perfectly valid when anyone is thrust into a situation with strangers.
For Jameson’s compelling examination of the instinct for survival, and how it shapes human character, I would wholly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction. Using a personal journal with shifting timelines to construct the narrative, Jameson wends a thought-provoking and highly satisfying tale examining morality, cooperation, and the will to survive. Recommended.
(With thanks to Penguin Books for the ARC)