Will Dean – The Last Thing To Burn
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, hardback £12.99. I bought this book new.
I enjoyed Dark Pines, the first in the Tuva Moodyson series by Will Dean, but somehow the Twin Pines-esque feel doesn’t click with me the way it has for so many others and I haven’t rushed to keep up with the series – though you should give it a go if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth a read (there’s a reason Dean went from the slush pile to being probably one of Sweden’s biggest exports despite the fact he’s a Brit). But this title sounded very different, and I got curious enough to buy a copy.
It’s his first standalone novel, though he said on a panel at Granite Noir in February that he’d first had the idea several years ago, and spoke of how the image of a woman and the isolated house came to him out of the blue. Dean is a very visual storyteller, putting strong, clear pictures in your mind – whether you want them there or not.
In a farmhouse in the Fens is a woman who lives in a world of pain that she can never leave. Her husband calls her Jane, but that is not her name; she is Vietnamese, with parents and a sister whom she longs to return to. Instead, she cooks and cleans and exists, while he works, in a piece of the UK so flat a pedestrian can be seen from a mile away and more, and recaptured in minutes. And when she’s in the house, she is watched by CCTV cameras, the tapes of which he checks every night. Lenn has a stolid exterior, and sometimes you wonder if he realises what he is doing is cruel or if he’s just utterly insensitive; other times you wonder how and where he learned such awful behaviour. He’s more complex than he first seems, he’s not evil plain and simple, which only makes everything harder.
Nine years ago, Jane (actually, Thanh Dao) and her sister were smuggled into the UK in a shipping container from Saigon. When she arrived at the farm, she had 17 possessions. This morning, she owned four things. But after trying to escape she must give up one of them; one thing must be burned in the stove as punishment for her disobedience. What will happen when she has no more things left to burn?
Jane gets through the days of degradation and drudgery, and her pain from the ankle that Lenn smashed after a previous escape attempt, by thinking of her sister, and how by surviving life in the Fens she is paying off the men who brought them to the UK, so her sister – who is in Manchester, according to her letters – can have a better life. What would we do for family? How far would we go to help our family, what pain and suffering would we endure? We don’t know what strength we have until we are tested. Jane’s resilience here seems endless, though she has a pragmatic streak that clashes with her selflessness, making her more real, and more interesting.
What few visitors there have been since she arrived have never seen Jane – until one turns up when Lenn is working, a newcomer to the village a few miles away. There is an immediate sense she is an opportunity, a Good Samaritan. But then reality surges back in. And this is where I almost wish Dean wasn’t such a skilled writer, because this reality is ugly, awful, sickening – and, one suspects, very real for some women right now. It’s a brave choice, as a white, male, westerner, to write a trafficked Vietnamese woman narrator, but this is a story that would lose its power if told from another perspective or in third person. The power lies in the immediacy, the reader forced to see through Jane’s eyes as each indignity, each horror, each moment of total control arrives.
But then along comes another reason to survive, to live. And the reason not to escape is gone too. I hold my breath at this point: Can she? Will she? Surely she must! But there is so much to conquer… And there are strange noises in the cellar which no-one mentions but are not a sign of something good happening.
The bleak beauty of the Fens – that flat land topped by huge skies that go on forever – and the rhythms of farming life anchor this novel in a very specific locality. But while Jane hates Lenn with every fibre of her being, and hates the unfenced fields that are her prison, Dean’s love for this landscape (it’s where he spent his childhood) slips through as a faint and welcome counterpoint. And for all the open space, it’s a claustrophobic novel: most of the scenes take place in the farmhouse’s handful of rooms; the repetition of meals, actions, desires and indignities make the months pass in a monotonous blur. There are no characters other than Lenn and Jane (apart from Cynthia, who is less character than catalyst), few people are even mentioned.
The ending is righteous, but I’m too exhausted to feel anything; I’m as numb as Jane. It’s a punishing read, but not every novel should be a light-hearted romp, sometimes we need something difficult, painful, heartbreaking to give our empathy muscles a workout. Take a moment before you turn the page to the epilogue to take a deep breath, because this was the point that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. (And I warn you, don’t think you can put this book down at any point; it’s strictly a one-session read.)
Reflecting the next day, I could see there are a few spots in the plot that if you poked them too hard would turn out to be a little fragile, but everything that matters is solid and truthful, and every emotion is absolutely truthful: No-one knows what goes on behind closed doors. We can endure more than we know when we believe we have no other option. Family is everything. Cruelty comes in all shapes and forms, and behind all kinds of faces.
The Last Thing To Burn is crime fiction, domestic noir, psychological thriller. It’s full of pain, fear and high emotion. It’s often awful but always compelling. It puts the reader through the wringer along with the characters, and, finally, it offers the tiny butterfly of hope after the deluge of woes are unleashed from Pandora’s Box. Will Dean, you just about broke me with this astonishingly powerful novel. Thank you for writing it, and sharing it with the world.