Stephen Hawking’s The Last Paradise brings together a cast of characters including the beautiful Victoria, the arrogant Desdemona and the sarcastic Lea. These four people embark on a journey that unites the pleasures of modern-day London with the imagery of medieval Britain. But the attraction of this book lies in its setting: Hawking has chosen to tell his story within a market town, so the setting is as real and as tactile as can be. His descriptions of the streets, the shops and the eating houses are full of life and flavour, so much so that at times they even seem to move. It is this realisation that adds real interest to the novel, allowing Stephen to escape into the shoes of the reader as he witnesses the ups and downs of the town’s character.
This heightened sense of feeling comes across strongly in The Last Words of Stephen Hawking. The book’s first section, written in an impressive, slow, whisper-quiet tone, slowly builds tension until we approach the crux of the story. Victoria has fallen for a man whose deformity is only partial – he has fingers, toes and hands, but has lost his nose. Desdemona thinks that this was simply an accident. Lea’s suspicion is confirmed when Victoria reveals to her mother that she has been seeing this man for several months. In the ensuing conversation, Victoria describes her lover’s physical attractions but also emphasises to her mother the sacrifice it would be to let him have his freedom.
This is the book’s central conflict, at least at first. There are moments when the description of physical beauty or passion may appear to draw the reader into the story, as in the way Victoria describes her beloved. But this is not strictly true. She also says several times that she loves her father and mother, who are very close to her. In the last few words, when Victoria is dying of leprosy, she tells her sister, “I can make you forget about your mother and me… All I require is your love.”
The strength of this book stems from its restrained style. It never becomes malicious or self-centred. In fact, there are hints that the story could be quite upsetting. We are never shown physically or emotionally hurt by Victoria (although one scene does suggest that she may injure herself in a fit of desperation to get her boyfriend).
The book’s last few words are, of course, a devastating blow to Victoria and to those closest to her. As her lover drives her away, she utters the last words she will ever hear: “You’re not my type.” But what is really happening? Is this where the book ends?
The answer is no. The last few words do convey a message. They do reveal that Victoria’s love for her father has turned to love for her own life. This is a theme that we all know from Mad Men. It is sad, of course, to see this woman, once adored, cast adrift in modern society by her cruel and controlling husband.
But it is also necessary to remember that she is only saying these last words to her own life. Her relationship with her father was perhaps the most important aspect of her adult life. She had made a promise to be faithful to her father and that has continued throughout her life. If she had broken that commitment, so did her relationship with her father and the love that she had for him would have been diminished.
The beauty of The Last Word is the way in which Stephen Hawking peppers this tale with short, entertaining vignettes. He does not try to cover too much; he keeps the narrative focused on Victoria and her relationship with her father. The book as a whole stands on its own, offering only a glimpse into a character’s mind. For lovers of the short story, this collection will prove a satisfying ending to a long journey.