Hanna Jameson is an author whom I first discovered quite by accident. As well as buying many a novel (far too many in fact, like many a bibliophile I find the compunction to purchase books irresistible and have far more titles than I can ever hope to read) as a book blogger I also receive books from publishers and request them through services such as NetGalley, Bookbridgr and NB Magazine. It was when perusing one of these that I came across Road Kill, the third title in the author’s series of crime novels. The cover was striking, the description also, and I ordered a copy. A hardback duly arrived and I read it in just one sitting. It was a great book and I quickly purchased the first two novels in the series.
So when I saw that the author had written a new novel, a standalone post-apocalyptic tale of survivors of a nuclear holocaust, I was more than a little intrigued and got hold of a copy. The Last is a big step change from the author’s previous series, which were crime thriller/gangster tales. Instead this tells the story of a collection of ordinary people (in the sense that they’re not gangsters at least, they have more than their share of foibles) who so happen to be guests staying in L’Hotel Sixieme, a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Switzerland, when nuclear war breaks out. They watch in real time via the news, internet and social media as civilisation obliterates itself and now have to deal with the consequences.
The main protagonist is Jon Keller, an American historian. He was attending an academic conference, which was due to be held in a hotel nearer Vienna, but due to that hotel being gutted by fire, was moved with other attendees to L’Hotel Sixieme. For a combination of reasons he decides to keep a journal – his sanity, a desire not to be forgotten and thus a hope that someone might one day read it, an apologia to his wife and children who he left in the States. The novel consists entirely of this journal, which actually proves to be an effective way for this tale to be told.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflagration, most of the guests abandon the hotel, hoping to make it to the airport to fly home to loved ones. This despite the fact that such an act is illogical for most of the destinations they hope to go to have been wiped out. This leaves just a handful of guests, a core of whom Jon, and thus the reader, gets to know well. There are a variety of personalities, some likeable, some not, some who Jon clicks with, others with whom he clashes. When Jon and others find the body of a dead girl crammed into one of the water tanks on the roof they realise she was murdered, likely just before or on the day war broke out. Jon becomes obsessed with this murder and begins to investigate and this adds to the tension, for no longer is it just a matter of whether he gets on with the people there, the suspicion being that one of them is a murderer. Things are further complicated when food becomes scarce and they come across other, hostile survivors from outside the hotel. Soon, the guests in the hotel are breaking into cliques, wary and jealous of each other.
My assumption of nuclear war has always been that the world would just be wiped out and there would not be anywhere safe, anywhere survivable. Of course that might be the case, but equally sanity might intrude to limit the exchange. The author never spells out how the war occurred, we learn at the start that the US leadership has been taken out and Scotland destroyed, but equally the nuclear winter that follows is not utter darkness, the internet still functions (albeit haphazardly) and some people and places have survived. This implies that the war hasn’t been all out, that the nuclear powers haven’t unleashed every weapon in their nuclear arsenal. But things are bad and throughout there’s ominous signs: the trees in the surrounding forests are all dying and they rarely hear birds any more. As always, the very real and immediate threat is other people. They quickly discover that the nearest supermarket has been looted already and with other survivors looking for food it’s not long before they are bound to come into conflict with others.
The Last is a very enjoyable take on the post-apocalypse novel, not least because as with the author’s crime novels, there are subtle hints of urban myth and the supernatural. To name just a few: there’s the guest who is convinced that the ghost of a child follow’s him wherever he goes, sits in the corner of whichever room he lays his head; Jon is half-convinced that the hotel itself is cursed and that somehow it was fated for them all to be there at the end of the world; while the murdered girl in the water tank is reminiscent of the death of Elisa Lam, a Canadian woman who was found dead in the water tank of a Californian hotel, a case that has been much ruminated over by those interested in mysteries and urban legends (indeed in Road Kill, the author refers to the the same case in the narrative).
As with any post-apocalypse novel with a backdrop in nuclear war, this novel is not a bed of roses. But despite the subject matter and content, neither is it bleak. The Last is in actual fact rather upbeat in its worldly outlook. With its depiction of the survivors crafting a functioning micro-society amongst themselves and banding together despite the tensions that exists between their factions, it draws a more positive conclusion on the potential of human nature than the author’s earlier gangster novels. Whereas Road Kill was a nihilistic road trip, The Last is a tale of redemption, both of the personal – Jon coming to terms with the mistakes he has made in his past – and for the human race (the nuclear war was of course caused by humans and the survivors in a sense are trying to atone for this).
In conclusion, The Last is a great read and an interesting take on the post-apocalypse genre (which as with dystopia more broadly has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years). It’s well written, compelling, and full of interesting characters. A marked change in tone from the author’s earlier work, I’ll be interested to see what she writes next.
James Pierson 5/5
The Last by Hanna Jameson
Viking 9780241349175 hbk Jan 2019