Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review of The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (2016, Allen & Busby)

It was meant to be an evening celebrating her wedding anniversary to her husband, Kevin, attended by her grown son, Jack. Instead, Carla Reid comes round the following morning having been raped and beaten to find her husband in a coma and her son dead. The two young gang members who committed the crime are caught shortly afterwards and sent to prison. As Ben Toroa begins life behind bars, Carla is left to come to terms with losing her son and farm, and caring for her brain-damaged husband. She needs answers from Ben, but he’s reluctant to engage, wary of motives, and focused on surviving inside prison. As the years pass, their lives remain entwined, neither able to move much past the outcome of that fateful night.

Set in New Zealand, Fiona Sussman’s The Last Time We Spoke explores the aftermath of a crime on both the victim and perpetrator. Former teacher, Carla Reid, has been beaten and raped, her husband left a shadow of his former self, and her son murdered. She has to sell their farm to pay for her husband’s care. Ben Toroa, one of the two perpetrators, is a Mauri teenager from a broken home, his mother a mess and her boyfriend a violent thug; his membership of a street gang providing friendship and an outlet for his frustrations. He’s sent to maximum security prison where he struggles to survive unscathed. Sussman plots the years following that night and the tentative relationship between Carla and Ben as each struggles to come to terms with life’s hardships and transform themselves in the aftermath of grief and regret. There’s also a kind of postcolonial line running throughout that tries to set Ben’s Mauri heritage in the context of colonialism that gave the story a bit of a literary twist. The plotting and character development is nicely executed, though the narrative felt a little bit shallow at times, describing events rather than diving deep into thoughts and emotions, and the second criminal disappears entirely from view. And the end just sort of petered out. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging and thoughtful read.

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