Through the halls of the rich and the flats of the poor,
Wherever I go, there’s no warmth anymore.
Cyndi Lauper, “The World is Stone”
Rodney Hall’s new book, The Last Love Story, opens with a particularly scary, though not exactly unfamiliar, breakdown of a city, divided following a violent uprising known as the Great Day. In City South, citizens enjoy all the wonders of free living, while in City North, a paranoid and callous regime continues to extort every last drop of happiness from its already beleaguered citizens. Exiting City North is dangerous, with armed guards lining every inch of its perimeter, always on the lookout for freedom-seekers. What happens then, when Paul from the North meets and falls in love with Judith from the South?
In this brief and beautiful fairy tale of love amid the ruins of a disrupted world, nothing is simple. Paul meets Judith at a nightclub and immediately falls for her. After a brief courtship, he asks her to marry him and she accepts, but before they can celebrate, Paul wants Judith to meet his family in City North to win their hearts as she won his. She agrees and the couple make the necessary preparations, including passports, bus tickets and numerous other customs necessities. In City North, Judith stays at the couple’s hotel while Paul takes care of further immigration requirements. While waiting for him to return and for her new life to begin, she contemplates her luck finding Paul, relishing the maturity and acceptance he has allowed her to find within herself. Until, that is, several hours go by and he’s still yet to return.
Suddenly the chaos of Judith and Paul’s world becomes clear. And Hall’s talent for narrative trickery does too, as we begin to realise nothing is as it seems and that the meaning of everything we’ve learned previous to this moment has instantly changed. Within moments following Judith’s realisation that Paul is not returning, every one of Hall’s sentences takes on new meaning and suspense builds, as does the intoxication that comes with knowing you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. The whole thing gathers relentless steam from this point on as Hall considers the effect of a post-terrorism existence on the young and in love who have little to do with politics and guns and war.
Hall’s take on the new world is remarkable. He riffs on currents governmental practises and speculates as to the direction our world is headed—towards an even more claustrophobic and closed-off zone evidently—yet he maintains objectivity, especially with the rationale he allows the fascist City North. When forced to speak his mind about matters of national security, for example, City North’s notorious commander, the Lieutenant, deliberates:
Fascism was a political delusion of the last century. One of those contemptible divisions on the basis of political theory. Communism and Capitalism, for goodness sake! Two Godless systems slaughtering each other over mere matters of opinion. As for us, we stand firm on the deepest issues of truth. This border right here, between City North and City South, is the reassertion of identity based on faith.
The freedoms of City South come together to create a veritable utopia, fostering individuality and celebrating the joys of wealth. These freedoms, though, are all the more desirable because they co-exist with the horrors of City North, making them all the more worth fighting for. Hope, in Hall’s world, is not lost if a City South is even achievable.
Hall’s grasp on modern political motives is matched, too, by his impressive understanding of young adults. The author is not a young man, yet he manages to acutely express the struggles and values and attitudes of the young with relative ease. His frequent tours inside Judith’s mind reveal, too, a startling awareness of women:
Judith now knew for certain. She loved him. She already owed him the best happiness of her life… All those other things, too, things girls she knew had taken for granted since they were 16. Like the simple fun of dancing. And private moments murmuring together, as if even the commonplaces—especially the commonplaces - were precious. The fizz of beer. The promise of a reunited city. A safer world. Side by side watching their very own river swirl round the bend. His forgiveness for her discovering this or that about him. Her using him to find out what a man is like.
It’s difficult to explore the numerous successes of this book without revealing important plot details. Every twist counts as part of this superb reading experience. Hall’s manipulation of the reader is steered closely and carefully towards bearing out his thesis of world politics and its power to disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens who otherwise spend little time thinking about it. Through Judith and Paul, Hall explores love and companionship, suspicion and security against the backdrop of a world very possibly within our sites, and ponders just what becomes of these basic emotions in a brutal world ruled by politics and religion and race. And what becomes of the theory that there’s someone for everyone when our paths to finding those someones are so hideously blocked?