Every once in a while a book comes along that completely floors you with how emotionally charged and heart-wrenching it is. Diane Chamberlain’s latest novel, The Last House on the Street, is one such book. Part small-town contemporary mystery, part exploration of racial prejudice and the fight for civil rights in 1960’s America, it’s a dual timeline story that eloquently tackles a collective past that’s so shocking it’s almost too shameful to think about – which is exactly why we should never forget it.
In 2010, recently widowed architect Kayla is moving into the state-of-the-art house she designed and built with her late husband. It was supposed to be their forever home, but still heartbroken that her husband will never get to cross the threshold, Kayla is dreading having to live in the house that inadvertently stole him from her. Even with all her misgivings, she’s determined to put on a brave face for her young daughter. But then she begins to receive sinister warnings from a stranger who seems to know all about her life. Someone is trying to frighten Kayla away but what possible reason could they have for not wanting her to move into her new home?
Kayla’s story is inexplicably linked with the town’s dark past, which takes readers back to 1965 North Carolina, where a young white student falls in love with a Black civil rights activist. Ellie lives a life of privilege. She’s studying to be a pharmacist like her father and her family is well respected within the local – predominantly white – community. But Ellie feels restless in her stifled, small-minded town. Unlike her family and friends, she can’t ignore the racial prejudice she witnesses – both in her own home and across the entirety of America. And so Ellie joins the fight to help Black people get the opportunity to vote, which makes her a target of the Ku Klux Klan and the people she loves too.
The Last House on the Street is a deceptively ordinary title for such an extraordinarily emotional story. Shifting between the different eras, it’s a tale of the past and present colliding, and how terrible, inhuman acts can ricochet through the generations, continuing to affect people decades later. Through Kayla, we meet an older Ellie who’s no longer the naive, bright-eyed and idealistic girl she once was. She’s haunted and guarded, and as the story in the past gathers pace and importance, we learn about the forbidden interracial relationship that both made and broke her.
With many dual timeline novels, one part of the book is often more engaging than the other, and that’s certainly true here. Ellie’s story in the 60’s is so powerful and heart-wrenching that you don’t want to be torn away from it for even a single chapter. Kayla’s reality is overwhelming for her personally, but Ellie’s story is upsetting on a much bigger, wider scale and it overshadows Kayla’s narrative. Yet of course, Ellie and Kayla’s lives are intertwined, which is what makes Kayla’s chapters worth reading.
Diane Chamberlain conjures such a vivid atmosphere; the mingling of the approaching Cultural Revolution – driven by the more free feeling, forward thinking youth – with the deeply imbedded prejudices of the past, upheld by small-minded people set in their ways and high on their own authority and entitlement. The sense of mounting tension as Ellie begins to fall for Win – a Black man she’s been told she can’t love, let alone be seen with – is like a spark of a fire licking along a piece of rope, heading towards a leaking fuel can. At first it’s the warm flicker of longing, then a flame that’s impossible to douse. The shattering devastation as a result of that forbidden love feels horribly and sadly inevitable.
The Last House on the Street is a moving story that weaves social and civil rights history with mystery fiction, making it the kind of book that really delves deep into your heart and makes you feel for its characters. Through Ellie and Kayla, we see how tragedy, loss and grief shape a person, for better or worse. But also how it’s ultimately love – not hate – that keeps us moving forward and unites us.
The Last House on the Street was published by Headline Review on 20 January 2022