The Last Night is the second book from Cesca Major, author of The Silent Hours (click through to read my review), which I read last year. While the story is completely different, Cesca has come back to the narrative format that worked so well in her first novel - several seemingly separate narrators whose destinies become intertwined as the story progresses and a plot that uses the fictionalised account of a real historical event.
The book begins on August 18th 1952, when a little girl, happily running down to the beach to play, stumbles across a dead body floating in a rock pool. This horrific discovery is left unexplained until the end of the book, and the story immediately shifts to three months earlier, with best friends Mary and Abigail enjoying carefree days and lighthearted banter. The next chapter brings us right up to date (spring 2016) and introduces us to Irina, a furniture restorer whose horrific scars on her face hide an even greater hurt deep within, with a dark secret that she cannot face up to and which has all but destroyed her relationship with her now estranged partner.
We watch Abigail's story unfold, with her moving away to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Bristol following her mother's death, falling in love, embarking on a new life and longing to catch up with her best friend from home, Mary. In alternating chapters, we also learn more about Irina and the accident that left her permanently scarred, both physically and mentally. When she receives an antique bureau to refurbish, she discovers a series of hidden drawers and compartments, revealing a number of mysterious mementos and keepsakes. As the desk reveals its secrets, strange things start happening - ghostly presences, hallucinations, Irina's cat hissing at unseen things, ...
As Irina seeks to uncover the secrets of the bureau and its hidden treasures, she also starts to uncover more about her own tragic story. While Irina's story is sad, far more poignant is the unfolding tale of Abigail and Mary, struggling to believe in a new beginning after the war and trying to make their way in a society that still has little respect for women. What makes it all even more heartbreaking is that they almost make it and find their happy ending, only for a cruel twist of fate and a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time to tear all their dreams and hopes apart.
The tragic flooding of the small seaside town, based on real events, is vividly depicted in the author's detailed portrayals of the characters caught up in the disaster - both those whose lives have been scrutinised throughout the preceding chapters and the random strangers in the vicinity. Cesca Major has a great gift for fictionalising historical events and bringing them to life so that you get a real feel for the sense of horror and incomprehension as the events were unfolding. I did guess the outcome of the story way before I got to the end but this didn't stop me avidly turning the pages in the final chapters, unable to draw myself away from the horror of the events, knowing that the saddest thing is that they truly happened. At the end of The Final Hours, I was left reeling at the barbarity and stupidity of mankind, whereas The Last Night had me sadly shaking my head at the random unfairness of natural disasters. Reading the historical notes at the end of the story, I see that there is a conspiracy theory about the intense storms being the result of military tests on the nearby moors to create adverse weather conditions that could be used in warfare - maybe that's what Kate Bush's strange Cloudbusting video was about all those years ago !
Reading the heart-rending scenes of the village destroyed by the torrential rain made me think of another tragic natural disaster that was in the news recently (for the fiftieth anniversary) - the school and village consumed by a sliding slagheap in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan. If Cesca Major is looking for inspiration for another real life event to fictionalise in a novel, I'm sure she'd do the heartbreaking tale justice.
star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : £12.99
Disclosure : I received the book in order to write an honest review.