Review by Linda Hill
The Last Thing to Burn is an absolute masterpiece. It is one of those books that will stay with me for a very long time because it gets under the skin of the reader from the very first sentence and holds them spellbound throughout. Will Dean’s prose is sparse and starkly beautiful so that not a syllable is wasted in conveying character, creating setting, and imbuing his narrative with such tension that I found it a physical experience to read The Last Thing to Burn. It is a stunning book.
I live in the Fens and the descriptions of the farm, the skies and the oppressive nothingness are fabulously evocative. Subtle references to local landmarks give an authenticity that slams the reader into the action with filmic clarity. There is so much isolation at all levels – the actual and the emotional – that somehow The Last Thing to Burn could not have been set anywhere else. Will Dean captures the very essence of the place.
There’s an intensity that is almost visceral in The Last Thing to Burn. I could feel Will Dean’s words seeping into me, making me tense so that I experienced Jane’s life as if it were my own. And although Jane is not his protagonist’s name, I feel I have to call her that in this review because I was so convinced by her narrative voice that I don’t believe I have the right to uncover her full identity for readers. This is her story completely whilst simultaneously being a tale that could apply to so many trapped in modern day slavery. I found her strength of character, her intelligence and her sense of love and loyalty almost too great to bear at times because the writing made me feel as she felt and experience what ‘Jane’ endured so absolutely realistically. As she is subsumed into life on the farm and her real identity is eroded both physically and emotionally, she illustrates the utter power of human resilience and love.
Jane’s husband is terrifying. It is his ordinariness and his routines, contrasting with his systematic psychological and actual brutality, that make him so compelling. When he was away from Jane in the farmhouse I was permanently on edge wondering when he might return. It’s the way Will Dean omits parts of the husband’s background that makes him so scary. We don’t know him fully or understand completely why he behaves the way he does and we can only guess at the atrocities he might be capable of so that our imaginations feed into the tension and atmosphere created. I thought this was sublime writing. I must also mention the gradual increase in burning that links so effortlessly with the gradual increase in violence referenced by Of Mice and Men throughout the text that also enhances the tension. I’d even go far as to say that Will Dean’s creation of this atmosphere surpasses Steinbeck’s writing in affecting the reader.
Alongside a superb narrative that propels the reader into Jane’s petrifying world, Will Dean manages to illustrate all too realistically the lives of those exploited in the shady world of illegal immigration. I think The Last Thing to Burn shows more effectively than any newspaper article about gangmasters and containers the suffering so many have to endure simply to try to do their best for families back home. Yes, The Last Thing to Burn is a fantastic fictional thriller but it is also an example of compassion, realism and a lesson for us all in looking beyond appearances and not taking for granted the lives we have and what might be happening to others.
Heartbreakingly possible, terrifying and, I am sure, about to win all the accolades in 2021, The Last Thing to Burn is astonishing. I can’t stop thinking about it and feel privileged to have read it. Do not miss this one.
Linda is a passionate reader blogging at https://lindasbookbag.com/ , reviewing and featuring a broad spectrum of books including poetry, non-fiction, children’s fiction and the full range of adult genres, but she still rereads her childhood Paddington books annually. Find her on