The Last Thing to Burn
Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, pp256
Will Dean’s narrator “can feel bone shards scraping together, six-year-old shards” in her ankle, as The Last Thing to Burn opens. She hobbles across the fields, desperate to escape the hell in which she has been living. But the vast flats of the east Midlands defeat her, and her captor drives up in a tractor to take her back to his tumbledown cottage. Thanh Dao, Dean’s heroine, is a Vietnamese woman who has illegally entered the UK with her sister, and found herself sold to a farmer who calls her Jane and treats her as his wife. She has been there for years, her life utterly controlled and utterly bleak, kept from escaping by the thought of what it would mean for her beloved sister. Any transgression means the farmer, Lenn, will burn one of her scant remaining possessions. Broken and drugged, she nonetheless finds some scrap of hope remaining. The Last Thing to Burn is one of the best thrillers I have read in years: I consumed it in great gulps, desperate to find out how Thanh Dao’s story played out, and then read it again, more slowly, savouring her courage and her unvanquished sense of self, despite everything.
HarperCollins, £14.99, pp336
Captivity is central, again, in Girl A, Abigail Dean’s debut, another astonishingly good thriller. Here, though, the escape comes first, as Lex recounts the horrific details of how, as a child, she escaped from the bed in which she’d been chained by her father, smashing a window and jumping out, running for help despite her injuries, stopping a passing car. Dean shows us what has happened to Lex – known in the press as Girl A – after her escape, and to her many siblings, now they are adults. Lex picks over the details of how their father – “the rot in my bones” – gradually spirals into a religious mania and begins to curtail his children’s freedoms. She reassesses her relationships with her siblings, from Evie, who shared the filthy room in which she was chained, to Ethan, the oldest, who has made a somewhat distasteful name for himself as an adult, talking about how he overcame his “personal trauma”. Moving back and forth between the present, where their mother has died in prison, and the past, Girl A is harrowing, gripping and also, somehow, life-affirming – an incredible achievement for a first novel.
Little, Brown, £14.99, pp385
The Australian novelist Jane Harper is known for her excellent outback noir novels, from The Dry to The Lost Man, in which the harsh, sun-baked expanses of the landscape play as much a part as her protagonists. Her latest, The Survivors, moves the action to the coast of Tasmania, and shows that Harper doesn’t need sun and sand to write a compelling, terrifying thriller. Kieran Elliott has returned to his small home town of Evelyn Bay with his girlfriend and baby – his father has dementia, and he needs to help his mother clear out the family home. But Kieran hasn’t come home for years – a choice he made as a teenager had devastating consequences, ones that still echo through his family’s life and the lives of the town’s inhabitants. As Harper puts it, “soft hoary layers of guilt” still envelop Kieran, and not everyone is happy to see him return. When the body of Bronte, a girl who has been working in the local bar, is found on the beach, the events of the past come roaring back. As Bronte’s mother says: “Unless you want every secret in this place dragged to the surface, I recommend everybody in this room opens their mouths and starts talking.” Harper continues to go from strength to strength (although The Lost Man remains my favourite).
Follow Her Home
Faber, £8.99, pp288
The wonderful Juniper Song trilogy by Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay, is being released in the UK by Faber this month, and lovers of Raymond Chandler-tinged noir are in for a huge treat. In the first, Follow Her Home, we are introduced to Juniper Song, a Korean-American “half-employed” twentysomething from Los Angeles. Obsessed with Chandler and his PI hero Philip Marlowe, she jumps at the chance when her best friend, Luke, asks her to find out if his father is playing away with a young woman at his work. “I was no Marlowe, and Luke no violet-eyed knockout, but he was someone I wanted to help.” But Song has only just started her surveillance when she gets knocked unconscious, and the next day finds a dead body in the boot of her car. Song is a fantastic creation, sardonic and laid-back, permanently lighting up Lucky Strikes and smirking as she considers what Marlowe might do if faced with her challenges. But, warned off by “a man in a smart blue suit and polished brown oxfords”, she finds herself at a loss: her family has been threatened, and this wasn’t an issue Chandler’s detective ever encountered. “There were few threats which could stop him cold,” but Song has a mother and a little sister she loves very much. Cha’s follow-ups, Beware Beware and Dead Soon Enough, are also out this month.