Book review: The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

While the world seems obsessed with all things apocalyptic at the moment, the truth is that a darker and far more troubling future for humanity is one in which the world doesn’t end so much as slide, ingloriously and with every last shred of idealism shorn from it, into bleak and hopeless dystopia.

We have survived all right but without any of the things that made us truly great – social capitalism, universal healthcare, democratic institutions, the rule of law, hope for a future even better than the present we now enjoy.

In Andrew Hunter Murray’s stunningly immersive debut novel, The Last Day, dystopia is exactly where what’s left of humanity in 2059 finds itself on an Earth which thirty years earlier stopped spinning, plunging the planet into a side perpetually facing the sun, a dark side clothed in eternal night and a thin sliver in which life is possible.

It is, however, not life as we remember it.

Gone is everything good we once knew, along with most of humanity, lost to a new, far more cruel reality in which the rich can buy access to darkness, plentiful food and estates far out of decaying cities while the poor and even what’s left of the middle class, struggling to eke out a living with any meaning, purpose or the basic necessities of life.

In a world blighted by great pain and loss, in which tens of millions have perished trying to fly their home countries for the illusion of safety elsewhere, Britain is the last country extant, home to a privileged upper class, a beleaguered free populace and a slave class who labour in the “Breadbasket” of what once was Western Europe growing food for those “lucky” enough to have found a haven in the UK, ruled over by a prime minister who has more in common with ruthless Soviet-era dictators .

“The voice at the other end of the line was earnest. ‘I think he’s telling the truth.”
He looked at the briefing document on his desk, the one telling him he and his colleagues had just sixty days until the world change for ever, and in spite of the heat, he shivered.
‘I hope you’re right,’ he said. ‘We don’t have much time.'” (P. 3)

It is, by any measure, a hard fall from whatever the glories of world civilisation once were.

Most people are willing to go along with loss of personal and political freedoms as long as it gets them food and a roof over their heads, but Ellen Hopper is not one of them.

While she has sought solace from the breakdown of her marriage and society as a whole on a rig out in the Atlantic, mapping the new ocean currents of a transformed planet, there is a part of her that cannot relinquish a commitment to getting to the bottom of things.

Initially, it is simply to map what the currents are and what they mean for life on what’s left on livable Earth but when she is summoned by her old Oxford professor Edward Thorne, with whom she has had an unspecified falling out contacts her, close to death and with an urgent secret to divulge, she finds herself embracing a far more explosive truth, one she cannot relinquish or turn away from.

Many others would – her ex-husband David has been playing along with the censorial powers-that-be for years as a journalist at The Times, which has been reduced to little more than a sclerotic propaganda mouthpiece – but not Ellen who finds herself drawn into a great conspiracy that could fundamentally alter life on Earth all over again.

Andrew Hunter Murray (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Cleverly and deeply engaging, The Last Day mixes an edge-of-the-seat thriller with a dystopian world in which humanity, or most of humanity, has no appetite for doing anything more than just surviving and those that do dare to raise their heads above the parapet are ruthlessly and comprehensively beaten down.

Even knowing that this could be her fate, and dogged at every step by Warwick and Blake by two agents of the Stasi-like security apparatus and spied on by members of society for whom the only loyalty left is to who’s providing their next meal, Ellen faces losing everything, such as it is in this blighted world, when her search for Thorne’s deep secret prove all but impossible to resist.

The reason why The Last Day is such a compulsively readable book is not simply because the author has created such a richly detailed world which feels so authentic and real than you can imagine it existing far beyond the pages you are holding.

(It helps, of course, that we are teetering on the edge of such a slide into “reasonable fascism”, the kind that sounds perfectly justifiable until you dig down beyond what our leaders are actually saying, and so this horrific new world isn’t so hard to imagine; even so, Murray brings it graphically alive in a way that unnerves you, as it should, and makes Ellen’s quest all the more vital and engaging.)

The reason why the novel really hits home is because Murray offers up a profoundly intimate portrayal of a woman who had long ago ceased to care about much at all until an expected turn of events brings her back to what really matters to her and to the very essence of who she is.

“It had been a mistake; she had been surprised by the depth of her feelings, had hardly made it through the ceremony without crying. Even if she hadn’t had her experience with Thorne, she suspected now that the day had prompted her to resolve, at some level, not to engage too closely with anyone again. That was probably the source of her affair with Harv too, although even there she had started to feel her heart contracting a little at the thought of him lately.” (P. 255)

It elevates The Last Day from pedestrian thriller territory, which thanks to an imaginative premise and evocative writing by Murray it was never in danger of occupying anyway, to an earnest and affecting depiction of what happens to someone when they are given the opinion of either continuing to live in ambivalence or hopelessness or stepping up and fighting for a just and equitable world even in the face of virulent opposition and a fatal prevailing sense of resignation by many people that there is not much worth saving anymore.

Ellen comes to believe passionately that the world, scarred though it is, is worth saving, that Thorne’s dying mission is worth pursuing, regardless of the dangers, and that the actions of Davenport and his authoritarian cabal cannot be allowed to stand, a stance which informs the novel with a vitality that relies less on full speed ahead, pellmell action and more on the raw humanity of a person coming to grips with the truth of a situation.

The Last Day is brilliantly, affectingly immersive, a novel which takes its time setting up its narrative, and which, even when it is well and truly in flight, never forgets that what makes its story so captivating is not the just what of things but the why, which ensures that the raw humanity at its core is never lost sight of remaining front and centre even as things come to a powerful climax.

This is how a story told about the almost end of the world should feel – raw and true, human and moving, thrilling and exciting, offering up in the process a potent reminder that there is always a place for hope and action, and that without them, we might as well just turn out the lights and let the horrors of dystopia decay into the finality of apocalypse for we are fatally done for anyway.

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