The Last by Hanna Jameson
Dystopian fiction meets crime thriller in Hanna Jameson’s much-praised debut novel The Last.
This is not a harmonious marriage however. The Last is novel in which the two genres seem to be in conflict with each other instead of blending into a new and exciting narrative style.
The premise is an interesting one. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the Western world. The guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities.
Twenty people remain in the hotel, cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive. As days roll into weeks and the sun never shines or rust coloured clouds produce rain, the survivors become ever mor fearful for their future.
Some cannot deal with the uncertainty and immediately make plans to get to the nearest airport, ferry port or border. Others decide that suicide will bring a blessed relief.
In the midst of the upheaval, the body of a young girl is found in a water tank. No-one recognises her or even recalls seeing her in the hotel. But it’s clear that she was murdered and the murderer may still be in the hotel.
As the days progress, one guest, the American historian Jon Keller, decides to make it his mission to search for the truth about the girl. He begins keeping a daily journal of events, interviews with all the remaining guests and searches of the 1,000 rooms.
It’s through Jon’s eyes that we follow the reactions of his fellow guests, all of whom, have, until now been strangers.
The Last contains plenty of dramatic incidents. The survivors discover bandits in the woods outside the hotel; an expedition to find food in the nearest city results in death and one guest suffers a drugs overdose.
An Overcooked Narrative
But it felt like Hanna Jameson was trying too hard, throwing just about everything possible into the mix. Strange footsteps in the night. A hotel with a history of unexplained deaths. Guests who disappear never to be seen again. Rivalries between the survivors. Uncertainty on who can be trusted and who is a danger.
If this is all familiar ground so too is Hannah Jameson’s depiction of how a group of people would react in the fact of catastrophe. They argue a lot; challenge the right of anyone to lay down rules; resort to violence; worry about radiation poisoning; suffer guilt about family members etc etc.
But it’s hard to get attached to any of them because they are ‘types’ rather than characters; people who seem to have been chosen because they can prove useful to the narrative.
We have a doctor, a chef and a security expert . One guest is a student who turns out to be an ace with a gun. There’s also a guy whose job involves working with traumatised children – very handy for trying to tease info out of the two children in the hotel.
I never felt invested in any of these characters and in fact kept forgetting who they were. Their tendency to speak in platitudes and cliches didn’t help make them any more real.
… what we think of as right and wrong doesn’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.
Murder Mystery Fizzles Out
Throwing a murder into the mixture didn’t really help. It’s honestly a mystery why it was even included because it’s not particularly central to the story. No-one in the hotel other than Jon seems particularly bothered about finding the murderer; they’re more concerned with just surviving. And even Jon seems to forget about his quest periodically.
I could be entirely wrong but my suspicion is that the murder element was slotted into the plot part way through the writing; a kind of force fit rather than an integral part of the story.
The Last is a promising concept. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining but the comparison doesn’t work. There’s little of Christie’s sense of mystery and even less of King’s menacing atmosphere.
Though it’s a fun read in many ways and does keep you reading the pages, ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its original promise.