The Last Thing To Burn by Will Dean

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites gave her readers a bleak, contrasty, horror-filled tale set in an unforgiving Arctic landscape, peopled by men and women as unbending as a frosty mountain spur. Now Will Dean, who lives in Sweden, has written a tale in the same vein, but set this time in the boggy wastes of England. Dean’s glacial tone fits his catalogue of human greed, cruelty and lust, all documented in a record that could never remain undiscovered. Dean’s novel explodes the sinister practice of human trafficking in all its misery.

Her husband calls her Jane. A simple sentence loaded with a ton of hurt, baggage that has been laden upon her. Her name is not Jane, her identity is lost in sweet memories that have been taken from her, perhaps forever. Enslaved to her husband she is powerless. A tale of broken promises, this story reveals a slave trade that is pursued, virtually unchallenged, in modern, western society.

Will Dean has chosen to write in short sentences in short paragraphs, the overall result as unwelcoming as a winter storm. It has its own attractiveness stylistically but there is no joy in the matters its author is discussing. Jane is confined to prescribed areas of a farmhouse. Her every move is monitored by computers. She was once a Vietnamese with a younger sister. Now, apparently stateless, her efforts are to build credits for the benefit of her sister, to keep her sister safe from the predations of men like her master.

I know what’s to come. The fresh horrors. And I will endure them for you and you alone.

He stands over me.

Once again I exist only in his shadow.

Consumed by it (2 – 3).

A significant part of the agony is knowing what is going on at home and realising that she will never again take part. ‘Right now it’s Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. My seventh year, my ninth in this country. More important for us than Christmas’ (56). Deep feelings are transmitted through short words and crisp images.

The characters are sparse, the setting is bleak and lonely, the actions are slight and trivial, and there is next to no humour. Thus, in a story, Will Dean packs an encyclopaedic volume of human and crime and hurt.

Will Dean grew up in the East Midlands in the UK. His parents moved so often that Dean lived in nine different villages before the age eighteen. Later, he moved to Sweden, where he built a wooden house in a boggy forest clearing. Giving due regard to the disruptions in his younger years, and his choice to live near a bog, one of the least inspirational of landscapes, one is tempted to draw hints about fiction paralleling life. I think that would be a mistake. I prefer to think that Will Dean is about to join the ranks of the few, great writers of the new century.

The Last Thing to Burn

(2021)

By Will Dean

Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Aust

ISBN: 978-1-529-30707-8

$29.99; 256 pp

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