I had SUCH high hopes for this novel. The premise sounded great. The world has ended in nuclear war? YES PLEASE. Survivors are holed up in a hotel, and a body turns up? HELLA POIROT, GIMME. The race is on to find the killer? I’M THERE. The cover and the blurb activated that little part of my brain which said ‘ooooh’ and I’d plonked it in my basket during the final four seconds of waiting in line at Waterstones. A choice I regretted almost immediately after reading the first few chapters.
This review will contain spoilers because I’m not recommending that you bother reading it.
I’m going to be as generous as I can with this review because after all, it is a Penguin published novel (a high, established level indeed), other readers seem to enjoy it and I don’t want to be THAT reviewer who rips cruelly into other people’s work. But I have to say, this book has made me angry and frustrated about being duped into reading it, because I LOVE reading books and this took time away from me that I could have been using to read a better one. I know, I’m overreacting, but the wounds are still fresh.
Let’s start with the positives. The written style serves its purpose and it moves you from one plot point to the next. The first couple of ‘days’ recorded are the most interesting of the lot (the first lines of the novel are great) and it does feed some of the morbid curiosity about what would happen on the day the world ‘ends’ because it doesn’t focus on the most dramatic elements, simply a very personal and distanced experience. Finding out about the end of the world through your phone nowadays is actually pretty fucking likely and does send a little shiver up my spine when I think about it too long.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book falls flat on its face. The drama never picks up and you’re left convinced that this premise was far too large of a challenge for Hanna to tackle. Which is frustrating because truly, there’s not much to the plot at all. With that and her simple and easy to digest writing style, I managed to whizz through this book in less than 5 hours (thank god).
Firstly (SPOILER, YOUR LAST WARNING), the entire plot is based around the discovery of a young girl’s body in the water tower of the hotel. She was discovered a few days after the ‘end of the world’ has happened, when they go to check the water supply. Our protagonist then spends the entirety of the novel obsessing over her murder, ‘interviewing’ other hotel members about her (who are also completely confused as to why this girl is so important when billions have died, and why he isn’t concerned with more pressing matters like lack of food and cannibal neighbours) and generally being the wettest-lettuce-detective in the world. The kicker? None of his digging makes any fucking difference because he could NEVER have guessed who the murderer is anyway. Rendering his work, and our time, pointless.
Overall, Jon is an intensely dislikable character. This isn’t to say that fantastic novels can’t be built on dislikable characters, but in this book it causes the reader to completely detach from him. I couldn’t have cared less about him and honestly kept hoping someone would shoot him. I’m not sure what it is about him which is so unlikeable – there are elements which show us that Hanna intended him to be disliked to a point (many un-subtle hints and then confirmation that he cheated on his wife before she ‘died’) – but it is so much more than that.
He comes across as a troubled white-knight who dramatically lays around the place, thinking about how damaged he is, and how bad he is for other people. He inexplicably latches onto the murder of this girl as something he can do to prove to himself that he’s a ‘good guy’ after all (while clearly believing that all along because he continually uses his education in political science and ‘high morals’ to look down upon, and condescendingly ‘decipher’ other people). He’s a big Debbie Downer throughout the book, slowing the pace at every turn.
Another main character is Tomi, who is portrayed as a cliché ‘female badass’ in that she is outspoken, can shoot a gun ‘better than the men’, drinks a lot, has lots of no-strings sex with said men, loses her shit easily and, predictably, doesn’t want kids or anything vaguely domestic. Jon’s wife and kids have been presumed-dead for less than two months when he starts having sex with her, because of course he does. It was such an obvious plot point that it somehow makes him a less dimensional character, not more.
Jon and Tomi occasionally share the exact same tone of voice. It’s a problem throughout (except in the cases of the international guests) where I could read a line and anyone could have said it. All of the main characters speak with the same voice, the same intonation and as a result, completely merge together. All of their emotions change on a dime and they go from swearing wildly and brandishing guns to being coma-calm and vice versa. I imagine these kind of mood swings may happen in an apocalypse, but it felt more like the plot demanded a certain reaction from the characters, and their personalities were twisted to deliver that reaction with no thought to authenticity.
Towards the end, Jon also requires absolutely no convincing to stay put and not go after his family (who are miraculously all OK despite being in the epicentre). He says, verbatim: “I don’t want to go […] I just feel like I have to. I have to find my family.” His friend says: “. . . Maybe she’d prefer knowing you were alive here rather than dead trying to reach them” and immediately he replies: “Fuck. You’re right.” And that’s it.
My biggest problem with this novel was the ending. I absolutely hate murder mysteries where you have no chance of working out who is responsible for the murder, and this was one of them. During the last 10% of the book, I was getting frustrated because I realised that there was no way that she could wrap this up in a satisfactory way in the few hundred pages that was left. Turns out that Hanna didn’t intend to wrap it up – she just dropped in a confession and dabbed out. I found out who the murderer was and, no joke, threw the book across the room in frustration. For those interested – the murderer isn’t even a character in the book until they are revealed as the person responsible. Suddenly they pop up and ‘confess’ that days before, they’d gone to the hotel to perform a ritual sacrifice using her, in order to bring about the end of the world. Sorry what?
There is also a really disturbing scene where Nicholas Van Shaik, one of the men trapped in the hotel, attempts to rape one of the young women in a thinly veiled nod to the #metoo movement. Of course, morals dictate that you believe a victim when she comes forward about being assaulted. But usually you would talk to the accused also, and if they were guilty then perhaps in this situation you would turn them out to the forest or lock them in a room to prevent harm coming to anyone else. Instead, the group decide to execute him without trial.
I could understand this towards the end of an apocalyptic novel which has ramped up to a scene of desperation, paranoia and a totally new moral order – where everything has pretty much gone to shit. But this is presented as a stone-sober, “pragmatic” solution which followed some slow chapters and so seemed totally over the top and creeped me out more than anything else.
ANYWAY, long story short (I wish) – I’d recommend that you read something else. Two questions:
- Have you read it already and liked it? If so, am I being too harsh? What did you like about it?
- Could someone please recommend to me in the comments some good apocalypse novels?