The Last Time I Lied: A Novel by Riley Sager is a mystery thriller about a woman named Emma who is still plagued by the events that occurred fifteen years ago at the summer camp she attended; the incident that caused the place to shut-down indefinitely. One evening while she was tucked tightly into her bunk, her three friends and cabin-mates all disappeared into the night, never to be heard from or found again. Now, as the camp prepares to re-open after a decade and a half of abandonment, Emma decides to return in order to confront her demons and learn the truth.
Please note that I shall be discussing themes involving drowning. You may want to read at your own discretion.
Slow-burn suspense novels have never been something that I could get completely lost in. Usually the pacing is too deliberate or the story too weak for it hold my attention for long periods of time. As such, I haven’t picked up a slow-burn thriller in years. Yet, The Last Time I Lied is a novel that surprised the bleeding hell out of me. Not only could I not put it down, I never felt disappointed, bored, or nit-picky with it for my entire reading excursion. If I didn’t have other projects and obligations, I probably would have read it in a couple of sittings. Between the careful way the plot is written, the atmospheric and creepy spirit of the setting, the examination of psychological trauma in various forms, and the lack of unnecessary narrative bulk, it was quite a twisted little treat.
The novel opens with us getting to know Emma as an adult. She’s quite an infamous artist and she uses art as a way to cope through the trauma of what happened to her fifteen years ago. Establishing her emotional struggles helped drape me in feelings of unease right from its kick-off. This shadow of dread and insecurity about the role she may have played in the ambiguous night that drastically changed her future was a good way to hook me. I love the spine-tingling sensation that comes with psychological baggage when reading mysteries, mostly ones that involve tragic events.
Most of the story is told via Emma’s first-person perspective, allowing us to really engage with the plethora of emotions that she undergoes. There is apprehension from meeting with the family member(s) of whom she accused as the culprit when she was a teenager, the heart-wrenching anxiety when she starts hallucinating, the potion of determination and denial when she ultimately decides to return to the camp for its re-opening, and much more. The perspective gives us a chance to get inside of her mind, which is where some of the fun ensues.
The whole novel is centred on the act of lying. People lie as a way to protect themselves, to make themselves feel better about their otherwise shitty life situations. To avoid shouldering guilt when fuck-ups occur. Whatever the reason, everyone has lied at one point in their lives or another. When it is engulfed in a travesty akin to missing kids, the stakes and weight of those lies are also significantly higher. By being in Emma’s brain all the time, the fascination evolves the more we come face-to-face with all the lies being told, some of which I couldn’t tell were lies until the opportune revelation arrived.
Everything is a game, Em. Whether you know it or not. Which means that sometimes a lie is more than just a lie. Sometimes it’s the only way to win.”
For some readers, this going back-and-forth between being honest and being deceitful can come off as being overused or confusing, yet, frankly speaking, I felt that it was quite appropriate given what the story entailed. Teenagers lie about shit constantly, chiefly when jealousy and pride are in play. It’s also very easy to get wrapped up in your emotions during shocking experiences to the point where you become utterly typhlotic to reality and rational thinking. The novel depicts this exceptionally well, and because everything is expressed in a cautious, deliberate manner, that depiction felt wholly genuine and develops to be unsuspectingly engrossing. This game of Two Lies and One Truth is an addictive quality to the mystery of the missing girls, and I couldn’t get enough of it, particularly when it was combined with the symbolism of drowning, which comes up sporadically throughout the book.
Suffice to say that the writing and craftsmanship of the story, along with how it focuses on the different ways that lying affects trauma, especially when we’re lying to ourselves, was rather impeccable.
Another aspect that caught me off guard was the atmosphere. It is dark and haunting, and made me feel extremely uncomfortable in my skin as I read about characters rowing canoes over dried trees that scratched the bottom, making it sound like fingernails on a coffin; or when some of the characters ran into the middle of the woods and were faced with ruins of a long-forgotten past, before the camp was erected. It was so fucking creepy, impressing upon me discomforting notions of loneliness and malevolence, and even claustrophobia where appropriate. All of these were, once again, playing on the metaphors of drowning.
Drowning equates to losing complete control and being suffocated. The water closes in on you and you can feel your lungs burning and aching as you strive to swallow life-saving air. When the characters are in the forest, the gloominess and eeriness seem to swallow them up, drowning them in darkness and fear. With the psychological trauma, one of the characters starts to feel as if they are going stark mad due to an abundance of things that begin happening back-to-back, preventing them from obtaining the proper breathing room they need to think rationally and logically.
These were all afterthoughts I had as I closed the book upon finishing the last page, and I believe these contemplations are what further instilled my admiration for the tale I had just consumed.
All in all, The Last Time I Lied was a slow-burn novel with searing intrigue amid a gripping and ghostly foundation of guileful storytelling. The only drawback of the story is that the culprit(s) is somewhat predictable if you pay careful enough attention to the details that are provided, however, even then that is a miniscule point in the overall enjoyment of this book. I ended up enjoying this far more than I ever anticipated and I highly recommend it to readers of mystery suspense thrillers.
5 lockets outta 5!
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