The Last Time We Saw Marion by Tracey Scott Townsend

I had no idea what to expect when I started reading this book. I had checked out the author’s blog and seen glimpses of something…but I wasn’t sure what. Was this a ghost story? A horror story? A depressing tale of illness, death, loss?

I decided to read the first chapter before work, just to get a feel for the book. I could spare half an hour or so, just to find out what sort of novel I would be reading. Hours later my Kindle was showing 49% and my husband was anxiously pointing out that I was going to be late for work if I didn’t get a move on. I couldn’t believe it. The story had so completely absorbed me that the whole morning had passed, and I had to, extremely reluctantly, put the Kindle away until I got home from work. I finished the book that same night, unable to sleep until I knew what happened, what was to become of these extraordinary characters.

How to describe The Last Time We Saw Marion? It’s like no other story I’ve ever read. A ghost story with a living phantom; a heartbreaking tale of grief, separation, obsession, devastation; a story of spirit, family, love…it’s incredibly hard to define. Maybe the best thing to do is give a brief outline of the novel and my thoughts on reading it, though it’s hard to imagine being able to do it justice.

Sarah is the eldest child of George and Jane Wilde. Brought up in Hull she has three younger siblings – the twins, Marion and Callum, and baby Caitlin. From the start, Marion stands out as different. Although so close to her twin, Cal, that the two develop their own language, she is nevertheless a loner. Trapped in a physical body she cannot bear to be in, longing for the freedom of spirit, Marion tries hard to make her physical self disappear, fade away, desperate for the world to let her go.

The tragic loss of baby Caitlin devastates the family, and each one of them tries to cope in different ways. For Jane, the anguish is unbearable and she withdraws from her husband and children. George plods on, loving his wife, caring for his children, trying to do the best he can. Sarah becomes the good one, desperate to take care of everyone else’s needs, burying her own grief for her beloved baby sister in her desire to help her mother. Cal and Marion become an independent unit, needing and wanting no one else. But Marion can’t understand why Caitlin was given her freedom while she is forced to remain in her physical prison. Bit by bit, Marion begins to disappear, until one day she finally gains her freedom, an event that plunges Jane into greater despair and burdens Sarah with the guilt that she should have been able to stop it from happening somehow.

Fast forward seventeen years. Cal is a writer, sharing a house with Sarah in Pottersea, a remote village on the Holderness coast.  Sarah has given up the love of her life to take care of Cal’s needs, despite his palpable scorn for her and the unspoken knowledge that she is the wrong sister. One night, Cal is asked to make an appearance at a university, answering questions about his books. And one seventeen-year-old student asks him about his first novel, The Shell, the book based on his twin sister, the book that revealed the innermost secrets of her being and sent her spiralling towards destruction. And the student is the very image of Marion… From that point, Sarah’s and Cal’s life and the life of Marianne, the living ghost, can never be the same. Somehow, all three must face up to the past and find a way to break free from Marion, and one of them must pay the greatest price of all.

This novel completely absorbs you.  It is written from several viewpoints and is told in a fragmented way which completely fits the story. Despite jumping backwards and forwards in time, skipping from Sarah’s view to Jane’s to Marion’s to Marianne’s, the writer skilfully manages to avoid confusing the reader and the way she has written it is perfect for the kind of story she is telling. Nothing about this tale is straightforward and a linear narrative with one viewpoint could never do it justice. We are thrown around, never sure of where we are going, just like the protagonists. The setting for this story is just right – a bleak and lonely village edged by sea and river; a crumbling coastline; salt marsh and mudflats that mourn the loss of countless villages, swept away by a ravenous and unrelenting tide. So much of the physical has been lost here, only the echoes remain – like Marion herself.

It’s not always comfortable to read. Some scenes between Cal and Marianne are difficult, uneasy. And the loss of baby Caitlin is truly heartbreaking. The withdrawal of care from mother to daughter; the desperate longing of Sarah to be loved; her tentative request that she be allowed to sit on her mother’s knee ‘if no one else wants to’ just about tears you apart.  Cal isn’t easy to like. Marion is manipulative, sly, selfish. Yet she is also desperate, trapped, despairing…how can you judge her? Marianne’s obsession is scary, suffocating, her determination to get what she wants overbearing. But her suffering is agonising, her fate too much too bear….how can you not feel for her?

Throughout the novel I couldn’t see how there could be a happy ending or any kind of closure for anyone in this story. Then I thought, maybe I could. Then I was saddened again. Then I was shocked and chilled. Really, this book just puts you through the emotional mill, stirring up so many feelings and refusing to let you go. It has stayed with me, days after I finished reading it. I suspect it will stay with me for a long, long time.  I really can’t recommend this book enough. I look forward to reading more from this author. 5/5

Buy it here.