Published by Hodder & Stoughton
LITTLE did we know last year that by now we’d all have a semblance of how feeling cooped up against our will would feel. Some, obviously, have had it better than others, with private gardens to expand into, or a nice stretch of 5km to walk in, but others have had to confine themselves to small flats, or even rooms, for the duration of the strictest lockdown.
Baring this in mind, The Last Thing to Burn is possibly more relatable than it would ever have been before, yet the circumstance of “Jane” is, very different. We first encounter her at the top of an English country road, where she can see the spire of a village church in one direction and the Jeep of her captor lurking on the horizon of the other.
She hasn’t got far; her imprisoner has seen to that. We learn that early on in her incarceration he bludgeoned her left ankle to bits, Annie Wilke’s style, so even if she evaded his cameras or managed to ascertain time enough to flee from the decrepit farm house in which they reside, she couldn’t possibly get far enough away.
He, Lenn, has another ace up his sleeve; he has threatened the woman he has renamed Jane with her sister’s deportation if she so much as steps past the cottage’s threshold. The siblings are Vietnamese, lured to England with the promise of a better life. Instead, after a couple of years of farm work Thanh Dao was sold to Lenn, and has been his enslaved captive ever since.
She must do the everyday household tasks and make Lenn’s dinners to the exact specifications of his late mother’s methods. She must wear the dead woman’s clothes and answer to her name. Three weeks out of the month, she must sleep in his bed.
It’s a truly wretched life, and on top of that she’s in constant pain thanks to her ankle bashing, carried out years before. Lenn dishes out halved or thirded horse tranquilisers to her in order to dull the chronic ache, leaving her dependant on them to function.
He also uses her possessions as leverage against her stepping out of line; starting with seventeen, by the beginning of the book she has only three left, including her ID card and a photo of her family.
Not knowing what might next be deemed serious enough an indiscretion to warrant confiscation and destroyal of her things, she fears she doesn’t have long left with them. When a new, unexpected precious commodity arrives, things begin to take an even darker turn.
Told from the perspective of Thanh, almost the entire novel takes place in the claustrophobic setting of the farm house. Thanh reads letters from her sister to remind herself of her old life, and uses all her strength to remember who she truly is.
A resourceful, intelligent yet hopeless young woman, Thanh nonetheless shows a resilience born from necessity. Lenn is an uneducated dolt of a man, clearly influenced and aided by a man called Frank, monstrous yet convinced that he deserves the life he’s made for himself.
The characters are very well realised; Lenn is the very picture of isolated, mollycoddled man who believes himself entitled to women. Although rarely violent, when he is the results are devastating; his power lies in knowledge and coercion. With the Damocles Sword of her sister’s fate hanging over her, Thanh is powerless to attempt escape.
The ins and outs of the day rarely differ, yet Thanh’s wry and observant perspective moves the story along. The short chapters keep the pages turning, and the build up to the conclusion is excruciatingly tense; I found myself shifting in my seat as my reading pace sped up, willing a positive outcome that is by no means guaranteed.
Taking place over a few months, maybe a year, much of The Last to Burn is truly chilling, even haunting. This story is thankfully fictional, but it’s pivotal to remember that there are women like Thanh in the real world, being held against their will in the most horrific, dehumanising environments. Their fate, tragically, lies not on the pages of a paperback.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 27 01 21