After a massacre at a Bosnian prison camp, a young girl is found alone, clutching a diary, so traumatized she can’t even speak. Twenty years later, the last witness to the prison guards’ brutal crimes must hunt down those responsible to learn what happened to her family.
Twenty years ago, after the fall of Yugoslavia, the world watched in horror as tens of thousands were killed or imprisoned in work camps during an “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. Carla Lane has little knowledge of what went on halfway around the world when she was a child. She is living a near perfect life in New York City, married and soon to have a family of her own. But when her husband is murdered by a group of Serbian war criminals, strange memories start coming back, and she discovers that she underwent extensive therapy as a girl to suppress her memories. She is given her mother’s diary, which unlocks her childhood memories and reveals that she was, along with her parents and young brother, imprisoned in a war camp outside Sarajevo.
As her memories come back, it becomes clear that she is the last witness to a brutal massacre in the prison and that her brother may still be alive. She sets out to find her brother, but first she must hunt down the war criminals responsible for destroying her life. But these killers will stop at nothing to protect their anonymity and their deadly pasts…and are determined to silence the last witness to their crimes.
The Last Witness is a novel that demands attention from the very first page. The prologue is unusually written in second-person format. The ‘you’ is a young man lying in a grave in a cemetery near Mostar, a grave marked only by a number and not a name. Who is this man? Why is he buried there? Why is the reader given the impression that the man was a foreigner to the Balkans? In the next section, the reader learns his name is David, and that he’s an American who settled in Yugoslavia in 1981. It’s here as well that, although The Last Witness is published by a Christian publisher, some readers might be put off by some non-Christian behavior. The narrative then moves to the present day, and the story of Carla (in traditional third-person narrative) begins.
This is not a novel to be taken lightly. It isn’t a book you can read in one go. I had to take frequent breaks as I absorbed what I’d just read. I grew up in Britain. Yugoslavia was where school friends went on vacation. Sarajevo was where Torville and Dean won Olympic Gold in ice dancing in 1984. Reading The Last Witness was both a nightmare and a wakeup call to reality. This happened in Europe, in my teenage years. We thought we were better than this, that World War II was the last of such atrocities to take place in Europe. These things happened in Africa, Asia, the Middle East. The world had just witnessed the Gulf War. But they didn’t happen in Europe because we were more civilized. How wrong, how naïve was that way of thinking. Hitler and Stalin might both have been dead, but the evil lived on.
The conclusion of this book appears be about how one decision can lead to a life of good or evil and the concept of free will, but I suspect it’s the actions described within it that will remain with readers for much longer. If you’re tempted to think that Meade has exaggerated the violence for the sake of fiction, don’t. I spent a couple of hours reading the various witness statements that can be found online and the truth is just as bad, if not worse. Meade based this novel off one survivor’s harrowing story. But being brutal does not automatically mean a book is bad. On the contrary, this is a powerful novel that should be read. We often use fiction as a means of escape, but fiction can also educate and create emotion in a way that a newspaper report cannot. In The Last Witness, Meade has used fiction to bring us closer to the victims: people like us who just happened to be born in the wrong place and wrong time.
Thank you to Howard Books for my complimentary copy of The Last Witness, which received in exchange for an honest review.
Do you plan to read The Last Witness? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: 19 August 2014
Page Count: 432