THE LAST THING TO BURN
Hodder & Stoughton (https://www.hodder.co.uk/)
Leonard – Lenn to those that know him – lives in the small farmhouse on Fen Farm in which he was born, and in which he has lived his whole life; first with his mother, Jane; then with his first wife, also called Jane. And now with his second wife, Jane. Except her name isn’t Jane, and she was never officially married to Lenn. Thanh Dao is Vietnamese, transported illegally to Britain and now captive in Lenn’s home, forced to cook his meals on the ever-present Rayburn stove, clean his house and see to his needs, whatever they happen to be. Hobbled and almost broken, Thanh arrived at Fen Farm with seventeen possessions; she is now down to four – Lenn burns one for every rule broken, every escape attempt, every overcooked egg or undercooked chip – and is slowly losing her sense of self along with her things. But now she has a reason to leave, if she can only find the strength and opportunity.
I’ve been a fan of Will Dean’s work since Tuva Moodyson first appeared on peoples’ radars back in the heady days of 2018, so news of a standalone novel filled me with all sorts of excitement. I’m here to tell you that, despite her tough ways, and the strange crimes that happen in the even stranger town of Gavrik, the adventures of Tuva can in no way prepare you for the devastating story of Thanh Dao in the pages of The Last Thing to Burn.
Dean’s new novel has had favourable comparisons to Emma Donoghue’s Room and Stephen King’s Misery, both of which are well-deserved. Thanh Dao is, without a doubt, Lenn’s captive, kept in a sort of open prison: a small house – one room downstairs, two upstairs and a half-cellar that lingers at the edges of our consciousness throughout – in the middle of a large farm where everything from horizon to horizon belongs to Lenn. Or, as we quickly discover, to Lenn’s long-since-dead mother (there’s more than enough here to warrant comparisons to Robert Bloch’s classic Psycho, but that’s a whole other story): the Rayburn stove (which becomes a sort of character in its own right), the cast-iron pan on which Thanh fries Lenn’s eggs and ham, down to the pinny she wears and the ancient cloths she is forced to use during her periods. There is much to keep her from running even if Lenn were to leave her alone for long enough to reach the nearest road: her younger sister is living and working in Manchester, close to paying off the debt she accrued in getting to Britain. Kim-Ly is Lenn’s bargaining chip, his main hold over Thanh, who is not now, and has never been, Jane.
The hobbling is an added extra which brings with it a reliance on Lenn for painkillers, cementing Thanh’s imprisonment, along with the gradual incineration of everything she holds dear. When Thanh gives birth at the beginning of the second act, it’s just one more reason to stay put, and one more thing for Lenn to hold over her. So, the comparisons are obvious and deserved, but Dean manages to take two of my favourite novels to the next level. Where Donoghue tells her story from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, in many ways blunting the horrors Ma has faced, and King uses the omniscient third person to show us Paul Sheldon’s imprisonment in Annie Wilkes’ remote home, Dean gives us a front-row seat, an immediacy that can only come from putting us directly into Thanh Dao’s head, and telling the story from her first-person point of view.
We feel every twinge of pain in Thanh’s ankle, every emotional blow as one possession after another is tossed into the Rayburn. We feel the gradual erosion of Thanh’s identity as her things dwindle and as the drugs eat away at her ability to think straight and function as a normal human being, but we also feel the explosion of joy at the birth of her child, and the intense desire to regain her self that comes with it. In many ways it’s a brave novel for a man to write: what does Will Dean know about childbirth and how can he present it in such detail from the mother’s point of view? But it works, and it’s believable, and we’re there with Thanh as she undergoes her ordeal (at least in the mind of this reviewer, who also has no direct reference point of experience).
It’s early to be talking about our favourite books of 2021, but I suspect The Last Thing to Burn will make it on to many such lists, my own included. It’s a beautifully written book that deals with a number of important and distressing subjects – including human trafficking and the abuse to which its victims are subjected – in a sensitive yet compelling manner. Thanh Dao comes to us fully formed, a character who gets under our skin, and who will stay with us for a long time after the book is done. This is Will Dean as we have never seen him before (we’ll be looking forward to Tuva 4 for a bit of light relief) but cements his place as one of Britain’s (or is it Sweden’s?) greatest living writers. The Last Thing to Burn should be top of everyone’s reading lists for 2021 and is sure to be Dean’s breakout novel (no offence to the wonderful Oneworld and Point Blank but the massive publicity machine of Hodder & Stoughton can only drive this wonderful author to new heights and a much wider audience). It’s going to be tough to find a better or more emotionally-charged novel this year, but one thing’s for sure: with Will Dean we’re in good hands.