I do not quite know how to reconcile In the Country of Last Things in my head right now. This is a bleak story, one that does not leave much room for optimism. When young Anna Blume arrives in the city after the collapse of civilization, things are bad. The city is tearing itself apart, a victim of the animal nature of humanity devoid of its societal manners. Anna arrives looking for her brother who has been missing for nearly a year and in an environment such as this, he is either dead or it would serve Anna best to assume he is, turn around and go home to what is alluded throughout the story to be a privileged life. In the city though, Anna’s life is one of transience and even when she does have a roof over her head, the gift is fleeting and soon torn away from her. Nothing good seems to happen to her, even when it does.
The story is a harsh critique of modern society, of our reliance –even insistence—on the luxuries of life, on creature comforts. We do not appreciate what we have now and it will take losing it to show us how selfish and awful we all are. It is a pessimistic book. Cynical. It is an honest and ugly look in the mirror and I did not like the face that stared back. You think you have First World problems now? Wait until the collapse of civilization and then you’ll wish you could go back to the good old days when shoddy cell phone connections were the worst of your problems. Try stuffing newspapers into your clothes to ward off the cold or collecting garbage in a rusted shopping cart hoping you can trade for food. These are problems and none of us are ready for them.
The book is a letter written by Anna to an unknown recipient, scribbled into a battered blue notebook with whatever writing instrument Anna is able to find. Funny how we would take something like a pencil for granted. It isn’t even known if the letter is sent. Was all of her effort for naught, even if she says she will be okay if the letter is never read? So much time spent in vain. But we have found the letter, haven’t we, so Anna’s story is not lost. She is a wonderful character, kind, honest, hopeful despite the challenges she faces. She is industrious, working hard to survive but also doing what she can to help others when finds equally kind people in her broken world. She is a bright spot in a dark place. How many of us will be like her when humanity fails itself and how many of us will try to twist what remains of the world in to a Mad Maxian dystopia? I fear a greater percentage will take the latter route which will make those of us who choose the former a rare breed rapidly.
This story is not quite as dismal as Cormac McCarthy’s superb The Road, but it is close. The resolution is equally ambiguous, which leaves the reader to decide for themselves, depending on how cynical a person they are, whether anything good happens to Anna again. Given how everything Anna Blume experienced went from bad to worse and because I am a Level 6 Cynic with a -2 to my Optimism skill, I am inclined to think her life continued to be difficult for the remainder of her days, however many of those there may have been. Dare I allow myself to hope she finds a better place? I am at a point in my life where I am pessimistic about the future and the nature of humanity, especially given recent global events. My friend, Mara, who nearly demanded that I read this book –which is her favorite of all time and has read it multiple times in multiple languages— is much more optimistic and actually manages to find hope in the story where I found despair. Then again, she is the kind of person who is able to see the good in people even when they cannot see it in themselves. So I hope she is right and Anna Blume ends up okay in the end. I would like to think so, for the sake of all of us.