In a dystopian, derelict version of Britain, a lone man escapes the misery of the cities and ventures to a remote village to reunite with his beloved cousin. His arrival at the village sparks interest from the villagers, who are encased in their own punitive way of living, one where the accusatory words scribbled on the church noticeboard can prove punishing and even deadly.
Thomas McMullan’s The Last Good Man is both a dystopian fable and a parable about the power of communication, and how, when wielded, it can be used to hold an entire community together or tear entire lives apart. Set in said dystopian future, it postulates that life in the UK has become so untenable that it is all but a death sentence to live in the bigger, more industrialised cities, and that country life is the only chance that our protagonist has – a view that has remained in undercurrents across the decades.
McMullan’s skill truly lies in his prose, as he strikes a fine, well-tuned balance and makes sure his sparse writing style never strays into austerity as he sketches out the world his characters struggle to survive in. This is a world of visceral, tangible feeling, one where only the present day has meaning; newcomer Duncan Peck experiences a hot cocoa after his journey to the village that gives him a visceral rush of delight, while an extended sequence wherein two characters take shelter in a cave crackles with tension alongside the pounding, unforgiving rain. McMullan does an admirable job of building an encapsulated world of extremes, where glorious sunshine and torrential storms act as useful allegory for the black-and-white morality of the village and everyone’s own shades of grey can be undone with the power of malicious gossip.
After all, to quote a poet of our time, Lady Gaga – “that’s gossip, babble on”. However these rumours don’t just go unchallenged or unabated – one man is physically beaten following accusations in a town-sanctioned punishment that is chilling, while others are imprisoned within stocks or hunted down like rabid animals. This is where McMullan’s work slips a little – it establishes tone very well but doesn’t hugely expand on the wider world outside of the village, or provide context or backstory about how this dystopia quite came to be. We’re given hints to the world through flashbacks to Peck’s childhood with his cousin James Hale, but it’s a bit of a shame that no more information is provided, giving the reader further insight; fortunately, however, the story and writing more than make up for this, ensuring an overall pleasurable experience.
Themes of redemption, shame, and guilt are key through the novel as the sins of the past are revealed and their consequences are paid out, whether fairly or unfairly. The pair of protagonists here – Peck and his new neighbour Charlotte Morris, a wife and mother struggling with her father-in-law’s fate at the hands of the chasers and her husband’s own failings – do well to drive these themes home, each of their journeys showing the lengths to which people are willing to fight for their loved ones and the power of being on the inside looking out. Indeed, while Peck is the book’s ostensible audience surrogate, an exile from the cities who has arrived at the village to reunite with his cousin, Charlotte is the more interesting character, a brooding, conflicted anti-hero whose protectiveness of her daughter is matched only by her quiet streak of ruthlessness.
More than anything, it is the power of rumours and speculation that play the most active role in the book – gossip and whispers, whether shared between confidants in the village cafe or splattered across the noticeboard, have the power to cause tremendous harm, sow hatred and division among the villagers, and indeed cause, in one way or another, the haunting events of the book.
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In this way, it evokes not Jackson’s The Lottery as purported by the book’s blurb but Miller’s The Crucible, with its web of sins and sinister chatter causing naught but anguish and suspicion as a result, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with its accusations painted in scarlet ink for all to see and speculate upon. This can sometimes lead to a starkness and brutality in the novel that may appeal to and repel some readers alike; one can easily see readers walking away from the novel unsettled and challenged in equal measure.
The Last Good Man manages to be ambitious in its small-scale storytelling and weaving together of a startling and evocative tale that sits with the reader long after the final pages have closed, somewhat suggesting that even after the end of the world, we might not be able to resist the temptation of a bit of harmless gossip. Well, perhaps, not so harmless after all…
The Last Good Man is out on 12th November from Bloomsbury Publishing.