Published by Viking
If a story about survivors stuck in a hotel in Switzerland directly after world annihilation will affect you in any way, it could well be the regret over not replying out of petulance or spite to that last prickly text sent by a loved one. The Last by Hanna Jameson imagines the aftermath of a string of nuclear bombs dropped on strategic spots all over the world, with the focus on those survivors from around the world being lucky enough to have been sequestered in Switzerland on, variously, an academic conference, family holidays and just plain old work.
One of the conference attendees, an American historian named Jon Keller, decides to keep a living history of the days after the world as they know it ends, which is the overlying premise of the book. Not quite a diary, certainly not in the style of an academic paper, the daily reports not only try to piece together the cause of these nuclear attacks but also the backgrounds of those who choose to stay in the hotel rather than take their chances getting to an airport or at least the nearest city. There’s also, unusually, a further mystery to be solved, that of the discovery of the body of a young girl in one of the water tanks from which the group has been drawing drinking water from.
The post-apocalyptic story is not a new one, but The Last has enough new approaches to the genre to set it apart. One is the murder mystery, the investigation into the illegal death of a child prior to the end of the world. Most of the guests are indifferent, dealing with their own losses and the grief of the end of everything, but some want to apply some logic, some reason to life again and so embark on solving the mystery as best they can with limited use of electricity and internet, a whole host of possible suspects and witnesses who insist on being unforthcoming, and their own sense of unease and horror over the circumstances they find themselves in.
As well as the mystery are the interviews with the guests, to find out who they are and why they’re there. There’s the head of security, there for donkey’s years and de facto leader of the group, taking charge of expeditions to search for survivors, and supplies; a doctor whose fiancé decided to leave with the majority of the other guests when they thought there was still time to get to airports; a young Australian who found himself behind the bar at the hotel after tracking down his long-lost stepfather there; another academic from the conference, a sociologist who is prepared to face the new world head on.
There’s a sense of detachment to the narrative, a removal of emotion possibly down to the shock of the situation. The story spans a few months, where the survivors come together to form a community, naturally falling into positions of nurturers, healers, hunters and gatherers and leaders. There are also those who inevitably take advantage of the lawlessness of the new society, and the group needs to decide how to effectively deal with them. It’s surprisingly civil, most of the time, but there’s a cabin fever that threatens to spread, especially when more about the post-nuclear world comes to light.
It’s scarily believable at times; some of the European guests are openly hostile towards the American sociologist when it’s revealed, not reluctantly, that she voted in the government that was ultimately the nail in the coffin in the plot to destroy the world. Though no names are uttered it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the author is likening this fictional President to. These little details are drip-fed as the tale continues, an effective device that keeps the narrative moving as much as the mystery and the story of survival does.
In addition to all that there’s even a hint of the supernatural, that, though it’s yet another facet to add to something that already has a lot going on, doesn’t feel out of place. Because of the very nature of the dire circumstances you could say that the narrator, and therefore the more out-there aspects of the narrative, is unreliable – he even acknowledges that himself, as he tries to remember and dissect the day of the attack and those directly following it – but overall the read is fast paced and page-turning, an intelligent foresight into what could be.