Coming on the heels of a really disappointing read, made Will Dean’s novel The Last Thing to Burn extra terrific. I probably would have felt that way about it no matter when I read it though. I discovered this book via Twitter, which is the same way I came across Chris Whitaker’s amazing novel We Begin at the End. Twitter, keep up the good work.
The Last Thing to Burn opens with our first-person narrator hobbling across a field, her “right ankle the size of a fist.” Her voice is so distinct and her anxiety so palpable that I was immediately sucked into the story. It is only when a Land Rover appears on the track and the man driving comes for her, that we realize this person is a captive.
He holds me with no force. His power is absolute. He needs no violence at this moment because he controls everything the eye can see. I can feel his forearm at the back of my knees and he’s holding it there as gently as a concert violinist might hold a bow.
His name is Lenn. Her name is Jane. Except that’s not her name. She’d come to England from Vietnam with her younger sister, Kim-Ly. They’d been told there would be jobs waiting for them and that they’d be earning enough money to send home. First, though, they would have to pay back the people who’d arranged for their travel. This debt is endless. At first, Jane and Kim-Ly work on a farm where they are fed and have one day off. Then, Jane is sold to Lenn and Kim-Ly is sent off. That was seven years ago.
Jane’s life is one of captivity. There are cameras everywhere in the little farmhouse she shares with Lenn. Every day when Lenn comes back from tending to the fields, he watches the tapes. Her responsibilities are to keep the house just as his mother, also called Jane, did and to cook his meals, the same rotation every week, exactly as his mother did. She wears his mother’s old clothes, uses her cloth sanitary napkins. One week a month, Jane is allowed to sleep in the back bedroom. Three weeks a month,
I lie on the bed and pull the thin cotton sheet over myself. I adjust it so the sheet’s covering me from the navel and higher. This is, in some ways, the worst of it. The waiting. because it drives the truth home like a hammer would drive a nail through a plank of rotten wood.
When Jane misbehaves, Lenn throws one of her precious belongings into the fire. All these years later, all that remains are her ID with her true name on it, letters from her sister (who is working in a Manchester), a picture of her parents and a copy of Of Mice and Men.
The Last Thing to Burn is really one of those books that you read with your heart in your throat. I flew through it in two sittings because I had to know what was going to happen. Jane is an unforgettable character, but so is Lenn. He’s clearly a monster, a psychopath, and “even though he’s not a violent man, not usually, […] he’ll take what he wants in his own horrifically gentle way.” Dean wisely avoids being too graphic, but it won’t matter, the implied is enough.
Although the ending was a teensy bit abrupt, The Last Thing to Burn is a solid, well-written, propulsive page turner, and I doubt you’ll soon forget Jane.