On the night of May 27-May 28 on an alternate earth, people around the world celebrate Last Night. The holiday has ancient roots. On this night, people try to make amends to people they’ve wrong; make sacrifices; or just light bonfires, drink, and have a good time. Domenica Ruta’s Last Day jumps from character to character on one Last Night in an unknown year. All of the characters are isolated from their friends and families for a variety of reasons. All are seeking something—a sense of connection, most of all—and all of them struggle to relate to the people around them. In addition to all this is the lingering question: what if this Last Night is the Last Night?
Last Day follows Sarah, a disaffected teenager; Kurt, a sad sack tattoo artist; Bear, a lonely astronaut on the International Space Station; and Karen, a mentally ill woman who is on her last chances at her job and half-way house home. Of these, my favorite is Karen. Karen recognizes that she has mental issues but continues to follow her own logic, no matter how out of sync with reality it is. She has unusual insights and fixations; I found her strangely endearing even though I know that if I met her in real life she would annoy the hell out of me. But something about her makes me want to reach out to her and help her. She means well, even if she often ends up causing mayhem. Bear is similarly sympathetic. He’s a good man, but no one seems to really see and appreciate him. I really felt for him as he had to put up with a dismissive Russian cosmonaut and an incredibly irritating, over-privileged space tourist from Japan.
Sarah and Kurt, the characters in the other half of the book, are harder to sympathize with, though I think I understand their place in the book. Sarah is one of those teenagers who seems utterly determined not to enjoy anything. She affects cynicism and pretentiousness. And yet, she is the only one in the book who seems to take Last Day as a warning that life on earth could come to an end. Kurt, the other character who takes Last Day seriously, doesn’t see the day as a warning. Instead, Kurt sees the day as a chance to address the biggest wrong in his life, the thing that threw him off track. In comparison to Karen, Bear, and even Sarah, Kurt is the least developed character.
Now that I’ve finished reading Last Day, I feel like I’ve experienced a bait-and-switch. The bulk of the novel, until the very end, distracts us with human problems, history, and mythology. All of this draws our attention away from the ultimate meaning of Last Day. This bait-and-switch feels like a slap in the face. Once I recovered, however, I had an epiphany. In this age of climate change and the very real extinctions going on around us, we could use a lot less distraction with things that don’t matter when there’s a chance that life as we know it actually is coming to an end unless we as a species make substantial changes now.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.