The Last Pier, by Roma Tearne, is a beautifully written, evocative tale that explores sibling rivalry, guilt, and the complexities of familial love. Set in and around a bucolic, Suffolk fruit farm on the eve of the Second World War, the atmosphere is tense and claustrophobic as the cast of characters strain against their insular lives. This is not so much a story of a lost way of life as of lives lost due to the constraints of a society that demanded conformity and silent loyalty.
Cecily is thirteen years old and living in the shadow of her beautiful, just turned sixteen year old sister, Rose. With the prospect of war casting a shadow over the long, hot summer, Cecily watches from the sidelines as her sister flirts with lust and adventure. She is jealous of the attention Rose receives, angry that she herself is still treated as a child. By eavesdropping on conversations she picks up snippets of secrets but never fully understands their implications.
Within the first chapter we learn that, by the end of this summer, Rose will be dead. Twenty-nine years later Cecily returns to their now empty farmhouse to try to unravel the memories of what happened and why. The guilt she feels for her part in the tragedy has coloured every aspect of her subsequent life, yet there is much that she cannot make sense of. Her therapist has suggested that she needs to confront these demons. To do so she returns to the home from which she was banished after her sister’s funeral with only scant belongings, but an armoury of blame.
The story unfolds piecemeal as Cecily sifts through her fragments of memory from that summer. The farmhouse has fallen into disrepair but retains the ghosts of her dead family in the form of forgotten scents, furnishings, faded photographs and documents. Cecily wades into the tide of pain that she has long suppressed, recalling events leading up to the devastating fire that stole her sister’s life.
“Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they claim remembrance when they show their scars.”
Memory is such a treacherous beast, affected as it is by triggers from the present and the filter of hindsight. The telling of this story is strengthened by such unreliability. Cecily recalls how she felt at the time but can now recognise how much she missed. By adding knowledge gleaned over the decades in between, and from documents she discovers in the old house, she is able to piece together the parts played by her parents, her aunt, two strangers who stayed at the farm that summer, and a family of close friends from a nearby town.
These friends, the Molinello family, came over from Italy in the 1920’s and opened an ice cream parlour on the Suffolk coast, producing delicacies previously unknown outside of their native Italy. They required fruit from their local farm and the families soon became close, their children growing up and playing together. Now in their teens the children’s feelings are shifting. Cecily longs for more attention from Carlo, but believes that he, along with everyone else, has been distracted by Rose. As the young people grapple with their burgeoning desires, the adults are playing a more dangerous game. In the end it is their love affairs, jealousies and allegiances that will tear both families apart.
The final quarter of the book tied up the many, scattered threads but somehow lacked the brooding, dark, convoluted beauty of the story telling which had captivated me up until that point. The reading of the diaries and letters felt underplayed, almost bland after the pain of all that had gone before.
Woven into the finale of the tale are true events, rarely discussed horrors from the war. The acknowledgement of this is timely given current treatment of those who are regarded as foreign. It is depressing how little is learned from history. Those who look back on idyllic times are perhaps remembering locations rather than people whose thoughts and actions were far from any ideal.
Despite minor reservations around the denouement, I enjoyed this book immensely. A fine example of outstanding story telling that deserves to be widely read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aardvark Bureau.