Viking | 2019 (31 January) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Jon Keller left his home and family in California for a conference in a hotel in Switzerland unhappy about how he had left things. He really needed to sit down and work things out with his wife for the good of their two adored young daughters. Emails and texts are all very well but home seems such a long way away. And then those emails and texts stop. Everything stops. Modern life comes to an end. Survival instincts have to be dredged up from humanity’s distant prehistoric past. Because one morning, while Jon and his conference colleagues were eating breakfast, nuclear weapons fell on Washington DC and soon they fell everywhere, the last flickers of television chronicled the fall one by one of the world’s cities. Then there was nothing. For Jon, life has shrunk to the dimensions of this hotel, preserved from the bombs by its remote location, so far from cities and any settlements at all.
The Last tells the story of the end of the world from the perspective of one man stranded far from his home, family and country. Jon recounts events in his own words as he records events in a diary. It’s his testimony, a message to his family but ultimately intended only for himself, and its power partly lies in the fact that he can only recall the full details of what happened on that terrible, terrible day bit by bit. And so the narrative frequently returns to Day One.
This is a remote hotel and many fled on the day the world ended and so we have just a small group of men, women and children to observe as they work out how to survive. It’s such a compelling and involving story. But there’s more to it than that when Jon discovers the body of a murdered young girl in the hotel water tanks. Jon is determined to discover the truth about her death, to do right by her as he couldn’t by his daughters, presumed dead in San Francisco. And so The Last is also a murder mystery.
It is, to be honest, a little difficult to focus on the murder mystery in this situation and so our focus instead is on the people in the hotel as they try to form a postapocalypse community, with varying degrees of success. I’m not sure how much I liked Jon but I realise that we’re not seeing him or anyone else at their best. I wasn’t keen on the sections in which characters took refuge in drugs and drink and it was all a bit Lord of the Flies at times, with some relationships becoming tormented. But there are some great and memorable scenes and I loved the way in which the novel developed. It is full of surprises and the end was as good as the excellent beginning.
I love apocalyptic novels and The Last has such a fantastic premise and I particularly enjoyed its setting in Switzerland, becoming increasingly cold and desolate under the encroaching nuclear winter. The joy felt by characters on hearing the rare song of a bird is palpable. There are gems in this novel. I heartily recommend it. And what a brilliant cover!