I’d completely misunderstood the blurb for The Last Thing To Burn by Will Dean. I assumed it to be one of those kidnap victim sagas about someone abducted and held for many years (like Room and many books since). And it kinda is. But’s also about the far weightier and fraught topic of human trafficking, or at least its aftermath and its repercussions.The Last Thing to Burn
by Will Dean
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Thriller / Suspense, General Fiction
He is her husband. She is his captive.
Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name.
She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows how she got to the UK: no one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen.
Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn't like what he sees, she is punished.
For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting ...
The book opens with Jane (Thanh Dao) trying to escape. We learn however that years earlier her captor Leonard (Lenn) shattered her ankle so her mobility is limited. And she’s addicted to pain meds (the type given to horses rather than humans) as a result.
Dean spends quite a bit of time describing Thanh’s ankle injury, returning to it again and again. I’m not very visual but I gather her toes are no longer pointed in the direction they should and Dean’s descriptions of her injuries are quite visceral. It means she’s in extreme pain, but also unable to make it far on foot.
Thanh has been ‘with’ Lenn for nine years and would have given up (taken her own life) years earlier but her sister Kim-Ly is also in the UK and Lenn’s threatened to have her deported (or worse) if ‘Jane’ tries to leave (one way or another). He’s also been slowly burning things precious to her over the years when she displeases him.
I should mention I struggled initially with this because I thought I was reading a different type of book and was waiting for it to become just that.
Or perhaps it actually ‘was’ the book I was expecting but with a difference. Thanh’s backstory and the fact she was ‘bought’ by Lenn moved the focus away a little from Lenn’s actions (as a sociopathic kidnapper) to Thanh’s tragic history.
Lenn’s given Thanh the name Jane. I was ultimately a little confused about whether he named her after his mother (whom he worshipped, though a psychologist might say ‘hated’) or after a previous wife. (Or ‘all of the above’ and I can’t say more because of spoilers!)
The pace is slightly plodding early on, but that may have been because the book wasn’t as I expected. They (the pace and plot) pick up however, and Dean offers some interesting twists though we almost rush to a conclusion.
We get to know Thanh pretty well and – though I was occasionally frustrated by her inaction – we’re in her head so we know that she’s weighing the implications of any potential courses of action.
I rated this a little lower than I otherwise might have because of the slow start but also because I felt a bit flummoxed by a few plot-holes. Perhaps I missed some crucial points. Lenn showing Thanh honeymoon pictures that she couldn’t remember, for example.
I think I would have liked to read more about Lenn or some of the story from his point of view. Initially it’s almost as if he’s violent (but trying not to be) but just doesn’t entirely know how to act around others. I could almost have imagined chapters from his point of view, confused as to why his Jane can’t see how good he is to her. Of course, we learn there’s more to Lenn than we initially realise but I still would have liked a little more insight – other than the fact Thanh tells us he’s harped on about his mother for years and she fails to live up to his mother’s cooking and cleaning.
I mentioned Thanh’s backstory and there’s certainly a terrible irony to she and Kim-Ly’s departure from Vietnam for a better life in the UK, with her parents thinking they’re doing the right thing sending them off (in a shipping container), fooled by an immigration agent’s promises to find them work and keep an eye on them. Of course it’s far too common an occurance in reality.
There’s a lot to process here – a story to tell and lessons to heed. Towards the end of the novel there’s a comment by a character about the choice to live in small communities because anomalies are noticed, or people step in. Of course ironically it’s how people also get away with things under the noses of others…
Horrors can still take place, but people look after people even though they might never think of it that way. p 241
The Last Thing To Burn by Will Dean will be published in Australia by Hachette in late January, but available elsewhere from 6 January 2021.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.