Imagine the world’s major cities have just experienced a nuclear apocalypse and you are lucky enough to have survived, staying in a once grand Swiss hotel in the middle of a vast forest. This is the situation that Jon Keller, historian and narrator, finds himself in and, as a collector of stories by profession, he decides to document the months following the end of the world as we know it. During this time, he finds the body of a young girl in one of the water towers and makes it his personal mission to find out what happened to her…
For me, The Last is an intriguing mixture: part exploration of the human psyche, part character driven murder mystery and the odd element of 80s era horror thrown in for good measure. It’s about as far away from my reading comfort zone as I could get but I LOVED IT!
Here’s why I loved it…
The concept of recording history in the making so that your experiences are not forgotten, so that your life has meaning in the middle of chaos, really spoke to me. And the fact that it has to be written on paper as technology, including the instant history provided by the internet, is no longer accessible somehow appeals to me (I am a Luddite at heart). In connection with this, there is also a poignant section about the value of printed photographs: what happens if all you have left are digital copies of your collected memories and the people you care about, and you can’t see them anymore? It certainly made me go through my photos, make lists and start the process of ordering paper copies. Photographs are so important in my opinion as they hold memories, precious treasures, and our brains can’t always hold onto them without help.The characters: The hotel hosts a truly quirky cast of misfits and I think Jameson explores the social group behaviour as well as the individual motivations of the characters really well. I felt that the characters were kept at a bit of distance, as they would be with Jon as the person documenting, and usually a lack of engagement wouldn’t work for me, but somehow, I felt really intrigued and I enjoyed trying to figure them out alongside Jon (and indeed figure out the man himself, as he is far from being a reliable narrator).The big, thought-provoking questions: These are interwoven into the conversations the characters have and the stories that they tell. They are often understated or very matter of fact yet incredibly powerful. Is there an afterlife or a duality in this world? What defines what is right and wrong in a world without structure? What does democracy actually look like and does it work? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? How do you find meaning in life when all you had is gone and what makes a person valuable to society? This book really got me thinking!The children and small acts of kindness: I love that there are interludes when the only two children in the hotel provide reminders of how all is not lost and that there is still wonder and joy to experience even in the most difficult of circumstances. There is also a section when Jon is given a small ornament as a gift, which has a huge impact on him,
“The only meaning we might have left as a species – indeed the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning – is in the small acts of human kindness which we show each other…”
I strongly believe that despite (or indeed because of) the shambles our world is in, kindness matters more than ever.How our perception of “the end of the world” very much depends on what we have experienced before: One of the characters, Yoko, talks of her parents having grown up under occupation , how, after the Second World War, Tokyo was in ruins in every sense of the word, everything had to be built out of this nothing and it was. Because actually, the earth is still spinning, it’s just not following the rules of a western world.The “Is Jon one of the only truly sane characters or is he having a mental breakdown?” factor: As the story progresses, you are left questioning more and more whether Jon’s documentation accurately reflects what is happening at the hotel and whether his investigation into the girl’s death has turned into an obsession affecting his mental health. Sometimes he even questions himself. I love that element of uncertainty where you are compelled to keep on reading, trying to find and work out the clues.The cause of the attacks: we never find out the details of the attacks themselves and I liked this deliberate vagueness as the emphasis falls on general political behaviour, making the issues universal; politicians making the wrong decisions and citizens not being proactive enough or having enough power to prevent disaster, and the extensive impact of this on the survivors but also physically on the Earth– sound familiar?
A couple of things that I personally wanted more of/less of:
The gore! I think that the explicit moments are there as a shock factor and a nod to 80s horror fiction, but for me personally they felt a bit disjointed, disconnected and just personally not my cup of tea.
The hotel’s mysterious and possibly sinister past: I really enjoyed the premise of this; the dodgy deals, the high level of deaths and the capturing of a serial killer during his stay there in the past, but I found that there just wasn’t enough depth to this. There were moments when the hotel almost had a personality of its own (the kind of creepy I like) but they faded away. So basically, I just wanted more!
The ending felt like a bit of an anti-climax to me: I must say that this is just my own preference of what I wanted to read really and I can totally see why Jameson chose to end it this way (I can’t really say much more without spoilers!)
I wonder if Jameson has a sequel planned? There is so much there just waiting to be explored- I need to know what happened next!