There should probably be trigger warnings on the front of Will Dean’s latest thriller The Last Thing to Burn. Variously in the book is physical, sexual and emotional violence and just when you think that the depravations can not get any worse, they do. That said, The Last Thing to Burn is a creepy, nasty effective thriller and while a little over the top, based on the very real issue of people trafficking and sexual slavery.
When the book opens Jane (real name Thanh Dao) is making a run for it across a muddy field. She is having a hard time due to a problem with her ankle and before she gets far she is found by Lennie and taken back to their farm house where she is punished. The nature of their relationship quickly becomes clear. Thanh Dao and her sister came to Britain illegally as refugees, financed by people smugglers who sold them into sexual slavery. Dao was kept in line with promises about her sister but later through the physical abuse that makes it difficult for her to walk and a drug regime on which she is becoming dependent. But two significant changes in the household will change that relationship and her approach to it.
Lennie is an odious, reprehensible villain who gets worse as the book goes on, particularly as he slowly chips away at Dao’s sense of self. The title of the book refers to his punishments which involve burning her personal items until she has nothing left to cling to. Because this is all from Thanh Dao’s point of view some of the decisions he makes seem strange particularly one of the main drivers of the second half of the novel which involves not an illegal refugee but a local. Overall, though it stretches credibility a little that this guy is even at one end of a people smuggling and slavery operation.
But Lennie is essentially the bogey man. And while the setup is a story of human trafficking, the narrative does not delve into this issue much more deeply than to show that it happens and possibly in the most unlikely places (like small English farming villages). The book is really about Thanh Dao, her will to survive and the what she uses to cling to her basic humanity despite her circumstances. Dean is particularly interested in the impact of her not only having to think about her absent sister but other victims of Lennie’s brutality.
The Last Thing to Burn is tough. The book sets up an almost prison-camp like environment – a small house on a seemingly endless plain fitted with surveillance cameras and replete with ritual humiliations, violence and punishment regimes. And while it is a quick read, reader’s tolerance for this milieu will govern whether they can push through and see whether there is any redemption to be had.