The Last House on the Street is an engaging, thoughtful and horrific mystery that the past cries out to be solved.
As two architects, Kayla Carter and her husband, Jackson, designed and built their dream home in the exclusive Shadow Ridge Estates in Round Hill, North Carolina. Backing onto woods, as the last house on the street, they had the prime location in the new housing estate and within walking distance of the Hockley’s home that stood for a very long time. Just before the house move, Jackson died in an accident at their new home, leaving Kayla unsure whether she now wanted to move or not. She is torn between the house bringing up terrible memories of Jackson’s death and memories of how passionate they were as they designed the house for each other and their daughter Rainie. Before Kayla moves, a strange woman warns her off moving into the house. After Kayla and Rainie move, things start happening, leaving Kayla wondering if someone is playing tricks on them or ghosts from the past have an issue with her house being close to woods that harbour secrets. These issues Kayla discusses with her father, who lives close by, and Ellie Hockley, who has returned to Round Hill for the first time since she left forty-five years ago.
In 1965 a young twenty-year-old Ellie Hockley felt compelled to join the SCOPE project to encourage black voters to register to vote when President Lyndon B Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act. The SCOPE project was an incredibly ambitious scheme to recruit white college students (typically from Northern states) to live with Southern black families and encourage them to prepare to vote. As one of the only Southern students enrolled in the programme, Ellie faces incredible pressure from her family and friends and breaks her relationship off with long-term boyfriend Reed Miller. The hidden discrimination, even within families, is strikingly drawn in this novel. The incitement to the conflict that typically followed crowd gatherings, like the KKK (or Maga crowd), is startling how seemingly ordinary people can be drawn into unconscionable actions.
Contemplating the two timelines illustrated in the novel, we cannot help but consider how much things have changed from 1965 to 2010 and how much they have remained the same. The step forward to racial equality in the US is a torturous one, and reflecting the 1960s onto today’s world shows the open disparity in the treatment of blacks and whites. A story with voter suppression as its central theme and the brutality handed out to prevent blacks voting may not be as brutal today, but it certainly has the same objective, albeit more covertly. Recently there have been excellent books, like “Sing, Unburied Sing”, “The Prophets”, and “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” from black writers who convey a perspective and a deep pain that cannot be tapped into by white authors. However, I appreciate how Diane Chamberlain provides the view of white people who have taken up the cause for equality, regardless of race, colour or creed.
I thoroughly enjoy reading a book that, on its face, is a fascinating story with drama, suspense and mystery, but layered on top of historical events that educate and inform. Diane Chamberlain is building a reputation as an author that can uniquely deliver this with the right balance between storytelling and fact. The more intriguing timeline is 1965 with the dangerous situation Ellie encounters; although there are moments, I had difficulty accepting the choices made. The 2010 timeline with Kayla seems to be of secondary concern and mainly used to tie up several mysteries from the past without a strong theme of its own.
I enjoy Diane Chamberlain’s writing and her desire to share her perspective on racial discrimination in the US. I would recommend reading this book, and I want to thank St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing a free ARC in return for an honest review.