The Last by Hanna Jameson
Post-Apocalyptic | Mystery
Published by Atria Books
Released April 9, 2019
Goodreads | Amazon
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that my favorite genre is post-apocalyptic, and it has been for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated by the end of the world and the psychology of how people would react to world-ending events.
Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a unique spin on the genre, combining the usual end of the world scenario with a murder mystery. This is the first post-apocalyptic/mystery novel that I’ve ever read, and I was incredibly impressed. The two genres fit together perfectly in Jameson’s novel.
The story follows academic Jon Keller, who is attending a conference at a large hotel in a remote part of Switzerland. One morning, everyone starts getting breaking news alerts on their phones, starting with a nuclear attack on Washington D.C., and then proceeding to include other cities around the world.
Most of the hotel patrons decide to leave and head to the nearest cities, hoping that there are still planes flying to their distant homes. Several people, however, decide to take their chances at the hotel, assuming that help will be on the way eventually. Jon is one of these people who decide to stay, starting a diary to chronicle the end of the world.
Diary formats for novels are very hit or miss – they have to be done perfectly to work well, and Jameson did a great job. Jon’s narration and the day by day life of the survivors painted a fascinating by-the-minute story of survival and mystery.
Let’s speak about the mystery portion of the novel. One day the remaining hotel patrons notice that the water tastes funny and has a strange color to it. A few men, including Jon, climb to the roof of the hotel to check the three large water tanks. Sadly, in the third tank they check, they find the body of a little girl.
One of the remaining people at the hotel is a doctor, and she performs a very basic autopsy on the girl. She determines that the girl was killed prior to being deposited into the water tank and that the death occurred close to the time that nuclear bombs were being dropped all over the world.
Jon takes it upon himself to discover who the girl was and who murdered her. He interviews the other patrons remaining at the hotel, including some hotel employees who had worked there for years. As his investigation starts to unravel clues, he wonders if the murderer is still among their ranks, while he also starts to discover that the hotel itself is full of secrets.
There is so much that I love about this novel.
Part of the reason that the diary format works so perfectly for this novel is that we know just as much as Jon does. We’re left wondering, just as the characters do, which country dropped the first bomb, how many cities were destroyed, and if there’s any order or government left in the world. The unknown adds to the overall mystery of the novel and serves to make it more realistic. After all, if a nuclear apocalypse were to really happen (which hopefully it never will), most of us won’t be able to just turn on the national news and find out what’s happening. Survivors will be left in the dark just like Jon and the hotel patrons are.
Throughout the novel, there are allusions to the American president being the cause or start of the end of the world. It’s blatantly obvious that Hanna Jameson means for us to think of current U.S. President Donald Trump. Although I did not vote for Trump and do not support most of his policies, alluding to his being the cause of the nuclear war felt cheap and will also make the novel feel dated in the future when his presidency is a thing of the past.
At the same time, however, it brought up an interesting point: If the end of the world were to start with a nationally elected world leader, who should be blamed? The leader for starting the war or the people who voted for them? This was an interesting philosophical question that the survivors struggled with, as Jon did not support the Trumpian American president while the other American, Tomi, did.
“I’ve also come to realize that the non-Americans are stockpiling resentment. They blame us, Tomi and me, for what happened. They look at us and see one person who voted for this to happen and another who hadn’t done enough to stop it.”
I’ve consumed so much post-apocalyptic fiction, and this is the first novel that I’ve read that raised such a question. My own opinion on the matter is that an answer to that question is ultimately impossible and useless. The people who voted for that world leader would have done so (hopefully) never expecting such destruction to occur under that leader’s watch. Can we blame millions of voting citizens for what their government does? Also, if we do decide to blame those voters who elected the representative in question, should we blame the voters collectively or fault each individual person? As Tomi tells Jon,
“I can’t believe everyone is so fucking simple that they look at me and think I’m the reason we’re all here. The world didn’t go to shit because I voted for it. The world had long gone to shit; it took years. We all watched it happen. We were all cowards, none of us did what needed to be done, so I don’t know why you’re all lining up to blame it on me.”
Such a philosophical question sheds light on how much our political choices and votes can potentially matter, and why elections and who we elect should be taken seriously.
Another important philosophical question that is asked is that of repopulation and the role (or use) of women at the end of the world. Unlike the previous question of blame, this is a topic that many post-apocalyptic books discuss. In The Last, this is manifested by an attempted rape of one of the surviving women and the opinion of one of the male characters that rape might be necessary to continue the human race. As the character tells Jon,
“I’m just saying, is it always going to be about what we want, or is it going to be about the right thing to do?”
“…the whole future-of-the-planet thing, that’s a real question. Hypothetically, what do we do if the human race is gonna die out and none of the women want to have babies? It’s a question! I’m just asking the question out loud!”
Rape is almost normal in areas where war is happening, which is incredibly distressing. It’s not far-fetched to think that, in an end-of-the-world scenario, some people would use such an excuse to rape and take control of women.
Finally, one last philosophical question we encounter: How should criminals be dealt with when resources are scarce? At a certain point in the story, someone does something reprehensible, and the others are left to decide their fate. Is it better to find a way to isolate the individual and continue to use the few remaining resources to keep them alive, or would it be better for everyone else if that person is killed and resources go to the survivors that have not committed a crime? It’s a question that pops up a lot in post-apocalyptic scenarios, but one that is rarely easy to answer.
Jameson also writes about how certain people might react to the end of the world. Everyone is different, and people react very differently to crises.
“Some people react to a crisis by shrinking into themselves. Others lash out. To be honest, the gender divide between these responses is obvious. Van Schaik [one of the survivors at the hotel] had been locked into a state of fight or flight since day one, and so, to a lesser extent had Peter [another survivor]. There was always aggression rumbling beneath the surface. None of us could fight the end of the world, so Van Schaik was going to fight everyone and everything just to retain the illusion of control and power.” [Emphasis mine.]
One of my favorite aspects of The Last is Hanna Jameson’s use of setting to impact the tone of the novel. As things become bleaker for the survivors at the hotel, the literal sky starts to darken day by day. The sky and mood of the world reflect the gloom that the characters are feeling. It’s a wonderful plot device that draws the reader into the story even further.
There is so, so much more I could say about Hanna Jameson’s The Last. It’s easily going to be one of my favorite books of 2019. However, for the sake of you guys, I can’t bring myself to make this review even longer than it already is. Suffice it to say, I think this book is incredibly well-written and full of important philosophical questions, as well as being an entertaining mystery story. I cannot recommend this book enough.