Book review: The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean
The Last Thing to Burn - Will Dean
Human trafficking is a pretty nasty business. You think you know how bad it is and have maybe come across some news reports and true stories about it, but living through it is probably a lot worse than you imagine. There are certainly a few well-documented accounts of young women abducted as children who have been kept in sex slavery for years, but it's still hard to imagine how traumatising and damaging an experience that can be.
You would hope that Will Dean's fictional story of just such an occurrence with a young Asian woman in The Last Thing to Burn might make it a little more palatable but the experience and circumstances of Thanh Dao is still horrific enough, so horrific that what keeps you reading is the hope - and since it is fiction not unreasonably have some expectation - that there's a way out of it. And if you can feel like that, then you have some idea of what keeps Thanh Dao going, kept captive in a farmhouse in the north of England.
To Lenn, the farmer, her name is Jane, just like his mother and just like his first wife. Jane came over to England with her sister Kim-Ly, shipped illegally into Manchester, leaving their home in Vietnam with hopes of a better life. As they are illegal immigrants, they are forced into working off the huge debt to be paid for cost of their journey. Kim-Ly is working as a hairdresser and as long as she is there, sending Jane regular letters, Jane knows she can't afford to escape, but despite a busted ankle causing constant pain that is alleviated by horse pills, it hasn't stopped her trying.
Thanh Dao has been stripped of almost everything, even her name. She only has a few precious belongings including her sister's letters and a well-read - almost word-for-word memorised - copy of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, but each time there's an infraction of Lenn's strict rules, he takes one her possessions and burns it in the old wood-fired oven. Soon there will be nothing left to burn, and what will keep going then? As bad as things are, as brutally as Jane is treated as a slave things are about to get worse when a visitor arrives, and Jane discovers that she is pregnant.
You think there's probably only so much horror you could take in a situation like that, but Will Dean has a way of making this thoroughly gripping and compelling. A lot of this of course depends on how real you can make the characters and how - even in spite of the decline of circumstances - you can simultaneously still retain hope that there is a way out. That of course is easier to achieve in fiction than in real-life, where you can't rely on the approaching end of a book wrapping up the narrative. Perhaps that's why Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is so important to Jane, since it gives her the assurance that one way or another, there will be an end to this story.
The real strength in the book, and what makes the circumstances so harrowing that the reader is also willing to endure the horror in the hope of resolution, is in how well the characters are drawn. That is just as essential for Lenn as well as Jane. Lenn has the most insensitive, unthinking, blunt and brutal way of putting things. Incredibly Will Dean makes every single word, every ordinary commonplace phrase Lenn speaks seem utterly hateful. And yet, as utterly despicable as he is clearly is, you wonder if in his own warped mind, Lenn really believes that what they have is a fair and cozy arrangement.
If The Last Thing to Burn is as gripping, as tense and as dramatic as it is, even with the fictional reassurance that one way or another there will be a way out, that's the principal reason for the book's success. You want to understand how far Lenn can go before even he realises the injustice and horror of the situation. And on the part of Jane, you wonder how much she can withstand, how many of her scant possessions she can see destroyed before there is nothing left to hold onto and she breaks. And believe me, there are some shocking revelations to come before the last thing is burnt.
The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th January 2021