Last month, as much of the world began hunkering down in hopes of slowing the spread of the dreaded COVID19 virus, Eva, of the book blog Novel Deelights responded with a piece entitled “Nowhere To Run : a list of books set in isolated locations” in which she recommended 10 novels set in secluded locales like cruise ships, remote islands, and even the planet Mars. After reading Eva’s descriptions, The Last by Hanna Jameson caught my eye. Set deep in the backwoods of Switzerland, 20 residents and staff at the L’Hotel Sixieme find themselves isolated and on the own two months after a global nuclear war. If things couldn’t get any worse, the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks, prompting one of the guests to take it upon himself to uncover her murderer.
Unable to resist a post-apocalyptic whodunnit set in Switzerland I was able to secure a Kindle edition through Overdrive after only a brief wait. I whipped through Jameson’s fast-paced page-turner in no time, enjoying it so much I’ve concluded The Last is the best novel I’ve read this year.
The Last is told from the perspective of Jon Keller, a Sanford University professor of history. While eating breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant his last morning before flying back to America after attending an academic conference sees his smart phone erupt with news alerts of cities around the world being nuked. Deciding to stay put instead of venturing into town he desperately tries to contact his wife and kids back in San Fransisco but to no avail. Over the next few days news of the greater world dries up, television stations go off the air and local wireless and internet service vanishes. Before long, realizing they’re now on their own, those at the hotel are forced into rationing electricity, natural gas and food. As time goes by and hopelessness mounts, several guests commit suicide. As a personal antidote to this growing sense of purposelessness Jon vows to find the girl’s murderer, who he suspects hasn’t left the hotel.
Several things struck me about this novel. It has a contemporary feel, thanks to pop culture references to The Road, The Handmaid’s Tale and Pulp Fiction and also the arguments over the degree of blame America’s President deserves for triggering the nuclear holocaust. “Everyone knew how stupid and dangerous it was to vote for that kind of man, and those religious zealots!” yelled Jon, a liberal university professor at fellow hotel resident and survivor Tomi, a cynical, strong-willed libertarian. Seeing how a cast of international characters, each with intriguing backstories interact with each other reminded me of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Lastly, seeing Jon, a middle age professor forced into a heroic role by circumstances beyond his control is a recurring theme in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series I’ve come to love.
The Last is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and the more I think about it probably the best so far of 2020. Much thanks to Eva for bringing it to my attention.