Novels that hinge on twists usually fall into two categories: brilliant pieces of work that force us to revisit the earlier plot with new eyes, or a lackluster pay-off like a firework that might illuminate the sky for a moment before going dull. While I won’t be revealing the turns Claire McFall’s The Last Witness takes in the last fifth of the book, I will be doing my best to give a fair review to a novel I’m still turning over in my head—for many reasons.
Our protagonist is Heather, past and current, as she recounts the story of how she and her friends spent a weekend at Black Cairn Point. If you have seen any teen horror film then this cast is familiar: Emma, Heather’s beautiful best friend who has recently become obsessed with boys; Darren, Emma’s bullying boyfriend who is only interested in partying; Martin, Heather’s awkward and geeky friend and; Dougie, the boy who Heather is desperately crushing on. Literally, this is The Virgin, The Whore, The Scholar, The Athlete, and The Fool in literary form. From the first pages, we can tell this weekend is not going to plan and it continues to devolve once they find a mysterious brooch in the cairn. As Heather’s friends disappear one by one, the possibilities of solving this and saving herself seem to shrink.
However, we know from the ‘Now’ perspective that Heather—a year later—has been institutionalized. The story she tells and what Dr. Petersen believes really happened at the cairn create most of the tension. Will she ever be released? Will anyone believe her? Who is telling the truth?
In terms of that format, breaking up ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ not only creates effective cliffhangers in the past action but also reminds readers of the current stakes for Heather. The Heather of the past is, in some ways, not the same as Heather a year later. We can only assume that the trauma and horrors of the events led to this change despite what Dr. Petersen says. It’s a good format for thrillers and horror as seen in video games like Before Dawn and novels like Far From You. Here, it works together with the later twists, to establish early on that Heather might be an unreliable narrator. Whether that is due to the trauma of losing her friends, the time since the events, the need to protect herself, or something else is up for the moment.
Which is why—for most of the novel—Heather (and the others) bothered me. Now, we have to keep in mind that the ‘Then’ sections are a story ‘Now’ Heather is telling. Everything is touched and colored by this lens. For example, Emma—Heather’s best friend—is treated like she’s become this boy-crazy bimbo stranger since dating Darren with few redeeming factors. Once that personality trait is mostly dropped, Emma is treated like her trauma and shock are hindrances and annoyances to Heather. The relationship between them prior to Darren is mostly unclear. Whether this is intentional on Heather’s part or not (because I could see it going either way) is up for interpretation. However, Heather’s lens on Darren, Emma, and Martin are generally unflattering compared to Dougie who can do almost no wrong. Part of me feels like I would love to Dr. Petersen this book and figure out as much as I can pre-Black Cairn Point because what’s on the page feels almost as intentional as what’s left off the page. For some readers, I imagine these characters won’t satisfy, but—for others—there will be some satisfaction in watching this weekend tear them apart.
The plot, partially due to the structure and the reader’s knowledge, lags a bit in its pacing here and there. Since we know early on Heather and someone else survive, it removes tension from moments of danger even as it heightens the mystery of ‘what really happened.’ If the whole focus is that Heather, as the titular last witness, carries the power to reveal the truth but no one will believe her then we want to know why that is. Unfortunately, for me, only a few moments felt truly ‘thrilling’ because so much of the plot is wrapped up in Heather’s crush on Dougie, exploring the beach and then trying to escape it, and Heather’s ongoing paranoia about druids that no one else cares about. A lot of the scenes feel cinematic: you can almost hear Emma’s scream or the roar of the wind, feel the heat of the fire, taste your first beer.
So those twists…They’re in the last fifth of the book. By then, we’re fully in the ‘Now’ and dealing with the repercussions of the disappearances and having only one witness. We devolve into a bit of soap opera and then a bit of late-90s horror predictability. That said, these were twists that initially made me want to close the book (even though it was basically over) and filled me with a plotline of regret. The more I thought about them, however, the more I came around to how they affect the point of view, the entire telling, reader expectations, and added new insight on an antagonist. I’m still a bit split on the effectiveness of this and it leaves open more holes than it closes, but the novel feels suitably thrilling with this ending.
Overall, The Last Witness is a divisive YA thriller. Fans of horror may find it predictable in how it can follow tropes without innovating or deviating from old standards. Readers who enjoy multiple twists, dual timelines, and unreliable narratives may have fun here in how those are layered together. For anyone looking for books set in isolated Scotland with a touch of supernatural folklore this one may be a good beach read. Find a copy so you can discover the truth behind the disappearances at Black Cairn Point.