The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion
So Tim went on holiday without me and the only thing about it I am jealous of is his discovery of the Last Bookstore in LA, which looks pretty darned amazing. And because Tim is quite nice really he bought me some books there, a couple by authors he knew I’d like and one book entirely based on the recommendation of the bookseller. Now I’m not sure how long Tim spent telling this bookseller about my taste in books, but she got it so very right. I had never read any Didion (although I had heard of her and may even have one of her journalistic pieces on my wishlist) but this novel is completely up my street.
Usually this is the point where I give a very brief plot synopsis but that’s going to be quite tough here, not necessarily for fear of spoilers, but more because for most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on or what it was all about. It did all come together in the end, but I think that feeling a bit lost was an integral part of the reading experience for me.
“There were hints all along, clues we should have registered , processed, sifted for their application to the general condition.”
I suppose you could call it a thriller, maybe a political thriller. It has the right elements: spies, embassies, arms deals, shady characters, multiple identities, an unspecified island location. It even has a reporter as its central character, Elena McMahon, only she’s not there as a journalist, she’s somehow involved more deeply in the murky goings-on of an island that should be tourist heaven but isn’t. However, it’s not written like any thriller I’ve ever read before. The story is in a jumble, not stream of consciousness but not straightforward narrative either. But it’s not messy, it’s carefully constructed. There are repeated phrases and fragments, like memories someone is trying to put back together in the right order.
“Goddamn what’s the matter out there.
Smell of jasmine, pool of jacaranda, blue so intense you could drown again.
We had a real life and now we don’t and just because I’m your daughter I’m supposed to like it and I don’t.”
And who is that someone? The story is narrated by a curious combination of omniscient narrator and background character. But how can one character possibly have all these veiled links to Elena and have access to all these government files and interviews that are supposedly being used to put together the story of what happened to Elena McMahon on that island in 1984? So are we being misled?
“For the record this is me talking.
You know me, or think you do.
The not quite omniscient author.
No longer moving past.
No longer traveling light.
When I resolved in 1994 to finally tell this story, register the clues I had missed ten years before, process the information before it vanished altogether, I considered reinventing myself…a strategy I ultimately jettisoned as limiting, small-scale, an artifice to no point…
The best story I ever told was a reef dream. This is something different.”
In some ways, this book reminded me of a good film, like Open Your Eyes or Tell No-one, in the way it unfolds, with repeated flashes of key scenes and the situation devolving further and further from safe normality. As a reader, it’s an odd experience. I never felt I “settled into” the story; more than halfway through I was still shaking my head trying to figure out where it was going (though the clues are all there, and it would be interesting to read this again to see if it’s a more straightforward read second time around) but I still enjoyed it.
My only reservation is that to sell the government side of the plot, there are forays into political language that I would characterise as mumbo jumbo, or even corporate speak. And there’s a very definite attempt to make sure you don’t know if you can trust Elena, to the point that it becomes a little alienating. But then again not knowing who to trust is half the fun of a thriller, right?
Published 1996 by Vintage Books.
Source: Present from Tim, who bought it in a real (and awesome-looking) bookshop.