Title: The Last Witness
Author: K.J. Parker
Published: 6 October 2015
I’ve been told I have an unforgettable face. Ironic, really.
I have a gift; I can browse through the library of your mind and remove individual memories. You’ll never know I was there, and you’ll never miss what was taken. Useful for grieving widowers, moreso for ambitious politicians.
But I’m holding so many memories I’m not always sure which ones are actually mine.
Some of them are sensitive; all of them are private. And there are those who are willing to kill to access the secrets I’m trying to bury…
The Last Witness is the story of our nameless narrator with a murky past who makes a living by removing unwanted memories. It sounds like a straightforward and even good power to have; I doubt there is a single person out there who will read the synopsis and not immediately think of a memory they’d like to have wiped out of existence. However, as our narrator frequently makes a point of telling us, he’s no angel.
But it doesn’t take long to realise that our anti-hero is nothing so simple as either good or bad. Capable of both acts of kindness and acts of disturbing sociopathy, he is seemingly amoral while simultaneously holding true to his own personal principles and ethics – for instance, refusing to betray a client’s confidence by telling anyone else about their memories, although he may sometimes lie about them. He is as complex as his story, but every bit as believable.
A big theme of The Last Witness is power, and the abuse of it. It seems almost inevitable that having realised he can remove unwanted memories, he understands he is free to do almost anything he wants to anyone – provided that he is willing to pay the price of carrying their memory with him as though it were his own. Few people would be able to resist using that power for their own benefit, and our anti-hero certainly isn’t one of them – although equally we are forced to wonder just how much so many painful, unwanted memories affect him psychologically. If you did take on the burden of remembering traumatic events as though they were part of your own past, and your heart wasn’t already hardened against humanity in general, it soon would be.
We follow the ups and downs in his career as a contracted memory wiper for other equally shady but powerful characters, making money and creating enemies, until at last he crosses someone with a deadly power even greater than his own. It’s fascinating to see how our antagonist behaves with the boot on the other foot, especially once events veer off into a particularly surprising direction.
The most interesting thing about The Last Witness is its exploration of identity – just how much of who we are is made up of what we have experienced, how badly being a vessel for the basest memories of others could affect your own identity, and if nobody remembers it, did it really happen? Told in the first person, it’s frequently unclear whether what we’re reading is something which happened to our anti-hero, or is merely a memory which he took from another. At one point, he even questions whether his entire life as he remembers it is his own or someone else’s. It is to Parker’s credit that far from being lost down a rabbit hole made up of memories, we are instead drawn in to see how details of our anti-hero’s past can still affect his future. The twists and turns are often shocking but always engaging.
Examining that moral grey area between simplistic concepts of good and bad, The Last Witness is a very human story about whether your actions can be outweighed by your motives, and whether the irredeemable can be redeemed.
K.J. Parker- who also writes as Tom Holt – has brought us a brilliantly original and breathtakingly ambitious tale which explores power, identity and redemption. The Last Witness is Inception meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)