Review: ‘The Last Pier’ by Roma Tearne [2015]

Goodreads: How deep the summer had bitten into the land that last August, how cruelly it had burnt into earth and grass and air. What had started out as a pastel and water-faded spring turning so unexpectedly into a splintering, shimmering thing. All that had been required was a spark to cause a fire. Why had no one noticed?

The summer of 1939 broke the Maudsley family. Cecily was only 13-years-old and desperate to grow up; desperate to be as beautiful and desired and reckless as her older sister Rose. Now, in her 40s, the family resemblance is uncanny, but Cecily is a shadow of her former self. A part of her died that fateful summer. Returning to the deserted family farm as an adult, Cecily recalls the light before the storm, before the war came and before the terrible family tragedy. It was a summer of laughter and ice cream, promises and first love. She remembers her father’s unrequited love for her, her melancholy mother, and her brittle and argumentative aunt Kitty, and how everyone, somehow, was guarding a secret. None more so than the impossibly beautiful Rose. And in her childhood innocence, between snatches of misunderstood conversations, Cecily helps set in motion a chain of devastating events. Wandering through the family home 29 years later, Cecily hopes to lay some ghosts to rest but the past has yet to give up some shocking secrets.

the last pier

‘The Last Pier’ is an extremely poignant, surreal work of historical fiction. The novel delves into the lives of the Maudsley family on the brink of the Second World War, elegantly weaving together their lives, secrets and those of the community around them. ‘The Last Pier’ made me desperately, desperately sad and it felt almost like an invasion of privacy to read about the protagonist, Cecily, as she struggles to rebuild something from the rubble of her war-torn, secret-stained life.

The first thing I noticed in ‘The Last Pier’ is how well Tearne set the scene. She captures perfectly the wild, unpredictable Suffolk coast and its surrounding countryside. I was constantly picturing either this dark, lonely landscape or the heat-scorched yellow fields of the daytime (based on my own Suffolk village), and I think this setting was a brilliant choice to build and compliment the atmosphere of the novel. The quality of the prose is almost poetic, so alongside the construction of this landscape we are treated to a slow-building narrative interspersed with beautiful, interesting moments of revelation and clarity. Furthermore, conversely to what one would usually find in historical fiction, I like that the war is not the central focus of the novel. Instead the war drives events from offstage, largely due to the novel being written from a child’s perspective. The novel is written like a microchosm: the small ‘world’ of the Bly community acting as representative of the effect of the war everywhere. It gives this massive, mind-boggling event a very personal feel.

My only drawback with ‘The Last Pier’ is that it was confusing at times. I followed the jumps in time easily, but all the different mysteries tying into Rose’s death did become a bit much for me to keep up with, in particular her relationship with Pinky Wilson. Again, I think this was perhaps due to Cecily’s perception of the events, and I did like this idea that Cecily’s eavesdropping habit and some terrible cases of jumping to conclusions set the events of the novel in motion: a very unique twist. Some elements could have been a bit clearer though – I would also have loved more exploration of why Kitty acts in the way she does, but I accept that this is not her story.

Returning to the positives, there were a lot of shocking moments in ‘The Last Pier’ that made it a very interesting read. I had no idea about the awful treatment of the Italian community during the Second World War, and this novel really had an impact with its description of this and made me want to find out more about it – it was devastating. Moreover the revelation about Cecily’s mother is, by far, the crowning triumph of the novel. Perhaps I should have seen it coming, but I really didn’t and it elevated the narrative for me.

The characterisation in ‘The Last Pier’ is also very well executed. Cecily is beautiful and intriguing both as a child and an adult, and her view of her family is weaved so brilliantly into the narrative that I found myself sharing her idolisation of Rose, her love for Carlo and her doubts concerning her parents. These characters are all well written and rounded; I particularly enjoyed hearing about the history between Agnes, Kitty and Selwyn. Carlo as the subject of Cecily’s young affections is beautiful, fun-loving and good-hearted. I wanted to see more of him throughout the novel, as well as his siblings.

To conclude, I think that ‘The Last Pier’ is a beautifully written piece of prose. The plot is tangled, and distorted by Cecily’s imagination which makes it challenging in places, but this adds to the mystery and atmosphere. The characters are enjoyable to read, particularly Rose and the Molinello family, and the wider framework of the War adds an extra layer of tension. I picked up ‘The Last Pier’ completely on a whim in Waterstones but I am very glad I did, and would recommend it again in future.

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