Reviewed by Emma Crowley
In a quiet coastal village, Irina spends her days restoring furniture, passing the time in peace and hiding away from the world. A family secret, long held and never discussed, casts a dark shadow and Irina chooses to withdraw into her work. When an antique bureau is sent to her workshop, the owner anonymous, Irina senses a history to the object that makes her uneasy. As Irina begins to investigate the origins of the piece, she unearths the secrets it holds within...
Decades earlier in the 1950s, another young woman kept secrets. Her name was Abigail. Over the course of one summer, she fell in love, and dreamed of the future. But Abigail could not know that a catastrophe loomed, and this event would change the course of many lives for ever...
Without doubt The Last Night has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2016. Last year I was simply blown away by The Silent Hours, the calibre of the writing was astounding not to mention that twist that left me in floods of tears after reading it. Cesca Major also writes women's humorous fiction under a pen name so it's clear she can write exceedingly well in two very contrasting genres and demonstrates what a superb author she is. Incredibly The Silent Hours was a début novel but it read like an author who had been writing for years and years and had had many books published. So I was more than keen to see having set the bar so high with her first book could The Last Night even attempt to live up to my very high expectations. I loved the cover for this book it's broody, atmospheric, mysterious and contemplative and having finished the book I feel it ties in well with the overall plot and themes. I eagerly dove into The Last Night as I couldn't wait to get stuck into what would once again prove to be a brilliant story waiting to be discovered between the covers, yet at the same time I wanted to read it as slow as possible to savour the beautiful writing and enjoy every moment of this wonderfully crafted novel from an extremely talented author.
The Last Night is written between the past and the present and focuses on two women as the main characters, separated by years yet there is a connection between the pair waiting to be discovered. I would say do not attempt to read the authors note at the end of the book before starting as it would give away far too much. I'm normally a divil for doing this but in this case I was so glad I didn't as I would have seen what was coming and it would have detracted from the once again stunning conclusion. The book opens with a young girl exploring the cliff tops and escaping to the beach and coves near her home only to come across a gruesome discovery. Right from the beginning the descriptions are fantastic and only add so much to the story. The use of water and the coastal setting play such a pivotal role, along with the weather, that they almost become characters in themselves. It may sound strange to say that but throughout the book water seemed to be cropping up everywhere and I couldn't see why? But when all became clear it demonstrated that Cesca Major is an author who deserves great acclaim and if this is what she is writing now I can only imagine where her future work will take her.
In 1952 Abigail is living in Bristol and enjoys spending time with her best friend Mary. The remnants of war are still visible as the city attempts to fix it's emotional and physical scars. Out of nowhere tragedy strikes and Abigail is forced to leave Bristol and go to and live with her sister Connie in Devon. She has not seen her for many years since she married her husband Larry and Abigail is not looking forward to it at all but needs must. All the plans Mary and herself had made are now shattered. They had wanted to leave Bristol and travel somewhere together but now faced with no home, job or money she must go and accept the generous offer of a place to stay. Every so often chapters kept cropping up focusing on Mary and I was left wondering was there really any need for this seeing as she had been left behind in Bristol but she was a good friend to Abigail and I kept reading eager to uncover more.
Abigail moves to the coastal area of Lynton and Lynmouth and feels like this won't be the place for her. The atmosphere is stifling and relations strained in her sisters house with tensions and unease always running high. It's only when she gets out into the open and explores the area and experiences nature and the coast that she somewhat feels better. She meets a local fisherman Richard and things begin to develop between the pair. It never felt like their relationship was a full blown romance and that there was passion and fire between them it was more subtle and growing and I felt several chapters passed by just following them where nothing much happened. I had felt like this with the previous book but reading this second book I knew Cesca would just keep building and building the tension until we reached a shocking climax that left us open mouthed. Connie's husband Larry seemed to be an utter creep and a menace and I couldn't understand how Connie didn't stand up to him more. His shadow and overbearing characteristics found their way into quite a number of scenes with Abigail and I didn't like the threatening tone at all. Abigail came to Devon at a time when she was very vulnerable and in some ways she began to heal and in others crumble.
In the present day Irina lives in Petworth and runs a business where she restores antiques of all kinds and brings them back to their former glory. She likes to remain hidden and anonymous due to the scars on her face and leaves the front of shop work to a lady she has employed. Irina remains cosseted in her workshop away from the world where she can work her magic on the items she is restoring. A failed relationship with Andrew, an ever present reminder that she is not the person she would have wished to be when thinking about herself as an adult when she was growing up. It's clear something big happened to Irina in the past and it very much still affects how she is living in the present. She cannot make and keep deep relations with people and closeness with her mother is non existent. Irina is hiding something and the burden is ever more dragging her down and until she finds some resolution she will never be able to move forward peacefully. She is haunted by what she has experienced and feels shackled by events in the past.
A regular client sends a bureau to Irina to fix up and it's from then on that things start going a bit strange for her. As soon as it came into her workshop she felt uneasy but yet at the same time like there was a reason it came to her. She discovers objects in the drawers which seem to be calling for investigation. She feels them leading her somewhere. Strange events start to occur and here water plays a crucial role. Normally I would find these eerie happenings totally over the top and unrealistic, I don't like something that can't be explained and here it can't. But it's testament to the writing of the author and the manner in which these things occur that they didn't in the least sense feel contrived and I went with the flow keen to see just what was happening to Irina. I felt if she didn't find some answers regarding the bureau and what was happening around her every day that she would only grow ever more tormented.
This story doesn't doesn't move along at a frantic pace, more so it is slow and with each chapter there are not great discoveries instead there is an overwhelming feeling of tension and oppression like we are building and building to something that will in some ways give us the answers and in others only serve to create more questions. As Irina delves deeper into uncovering just why the bureau is having so much of an effect on her I wanted the answers straight away. There seemed to be too many obstacles in the way and I wish the pace had increased but truly it was all worth it in the end as the last few chapters were incredible and so powerfully descriptive that my emotions were all over the place. I never knew how things would exactly pan out but my god was it all oh so very very clever and all the setting up came to fruition perfectly. One small aspect brought a smile to me eye as one character proved they weren't the push over they had first appeared to be and had known exactly what was going on all the time and were able to play their role aptly at just the crucial moment.
The Last Night is just as good as The Silent Hours and all the readers who had cheered on Cesca's début for its brilliance will do the same for this book. It is definitely one of my books of the year and I am sure it will feature in many other people's top reads of 2016. The Last Night was compelling to the very last word. There were no signs of the difficult hard to wrote second book and I hope that Cesca is busy at work on book three writing another phenomenal story to satisfy her ever increasing readership.
Many thanks to Alison Davies from Corvus books for sending me a copy of The Last Night to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.