Published tomorrow by Ebury, July Book of the Month is Ali Millar’s ‘The Last Days’, a memoir about growing up in, and then escaping, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a dam-burst of a book, writes Darran Anderson, which marks the emergence of a major writer.
Despite the many formidable women in the Bible, there is also a tendency for inquisitive independent female figures to be gravely punished — Eve is condemned as the instigator of humanity’s fall from grace, the admittedly hard-to-warm-to Jezebel is thrown from a window, trampled by horses and then eaten by dogs, Lot’s anonymous wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the burning cities of the plain, and so on. Matriarchs of the good book were often required to be self-sacrificing, contained or even forced to conspire in their own undoing. A text that has been liberating in so many ways, inspiring civil rights movements for instance, has also been wielded to constrain the faithful. Yet, as we find in Proverbs (King James translation), there is the suggestion of something else underlying the scorn in these stories: ‘She is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house. Now is she without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.’ There was power in these women, or the potential for power, and it terrified those who glimpsed it.
Ali Millar’s The Last Days (Ebury Press) is a coming-of-age memoir set within and without the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is written in three sections or, more biblically, three ‘books’, entitled Genesis, Exodus and Revelations, largely aligning with the themes of its subtitle, ‘faith, desire and freedom’. It is a book about surviving in and emerging from the shadows of organised religion, the apocalypse, other people’s dogma and angst, the weight of the past and fear of the future. While damning in terms of the particular organisation involved, The Last Days is no atheistic treatise. It is much better than that. It is a testament to resilience of spirit and a sympathetic treatment of vulnerability and folly. It is a cautionary tale showing where fear, judgement and the longing for certainty can lead, namely to the justifying of the unjustifiable and a negation of life. It is an indictment of fanatics and cynics who prey on the lost. It is also a book that marks the emergence of a major writer.
As with the best bildungsromans, The Last Days ages and learns as it proceeds. Millar has a remarkable skill in capturing the way children speak and see the world, how they really speak and see. The childhood self she paints is curious and strident, full of naïve yet piercing observations. The world around her is rendered with great fidelity and depth rather than with cheap nostalgic notes of surface recognition. It feels inhabited and inhabitable and comes alive in sensory experiences and fine detail — the different houses she knocks on as a young Witness, their doorbells and inhabitants, for example. It is reminiscent at times of a book like Kieron Smith, Boy (by James Kelman) for its soulfulness and the sheer accuracy of its depiction of childhood. The protagonist is rarely passive, even as an observer she is always searching or nursing a silent defiance, ‘I love Edinburgh. I love how it smells of beer. I love Arthur’s Seat and the sea shimmering in the distance […] when we get to the top of the hill leading out of the city I look back and wait to be turned into a pilar of salt.’
There is no denying the darkness of The Last Days‘ subject matter. It’s in the title. The end of the world looms over the child’s world like weather, at times closer, at times further away
, if she lives in the correct prescribed manner, but all others will be condemned. She envisages ruined cities with birds pecking out the eyes of the unholy, people she knows. The impact of such stories upon an infant mind is nothing short of torturous. Millar has a talent for showing how the chilling and the absurd can mix, how the abnormal can become normal, ‘We don’t have a television though. Mummy says they bring demons in.’ During the great storm of 1987, which battered these islands, the childhood narrator confesses, ‘All I can think is that this is the voice of Jehovah who lives in the windstorm.’ One chapter, beginning with the line ‘I’m seven when mummy’s sister, Aunty Liz […] teaches me the trick of leaving myself’, is harrowing. The child has a recurring nightmare of being consumed by clouds. The pressures, ignominies and navigations of poverty exist throughout. There are moments — the line ‘Just like that, with only 83 words, you end my world‘ — that are genuinely heart-breaking.
Yet there is joy and levity throughout, often in elated dysfunction, like jumping on vinyl records in the park or observing porcelain cats that are said to contain demons. Gradually, cracks appear in the siege walls erected against reality and the light and sound seeping through (Joy Division appear and reappear significantly in the book) grows as the narrator becomes a teenager and stands at a threshold. Filled with the hunger of youth, which turns destructive when turned within, she is faced with the choice to stay or to leap.
Brave is an overused term in literary circles, especially in these days when hype has become ubiquitous, but The Last Days is an astonishingly brave book. ‘This was not an easy book to write’ Millar notes with characteristic understatement. There is so much at stake and so much cost already paid. It is seldom that I feel knocked off-kilter by contemporary writing but there is real momentum behind The Last Days. This is a dam-burst of a book. The Last Days is also so gracious and deft, so carefully weighted, so tender yet flinty, so cinematic and earthed. The book is fundamentally empathetic and can be seen as an extended plea to the author’s mother. It reaches out, even if there is no-one, as of yet, reaching back — except the beloved family Millar has created for herself.
There is a great deal of hard-won, valuable wisdom here for the more heathen among us. The particularity of Millar’s experience is important, as is the particularity of any book or life is, but The Last Days is by no means exclusive to the Jehovah Witnesses, Christianity, or even religions generally. Instead, it is a warning against departing from objective material reality into any form of ideology or orthodoxy.
Cult-like entrapment and myopia isn’t unique to religious faith, and indeed some of the most perilous contemporary forms of groupthink appear to come in secular forms. ‘To keep the congregation clean, we disfellowship unrepentant wrongdoers,’ Millar writes ‘taking care not to associate with them afterwards. This is an act of love.’ It is a form of punitive benevolence that is all too recognisable in our age. These echoes make The Last Days a chilling read at times, particularly when Millar touches on how the road to hell may be paved by good intentions. ‘These are the beliefs you said would save my life and neither of us knew, not then, what they would do to us.’
Millar emerges, both true to her younger self, and transformed. You feel the weight, pain and melancholy when she writes to her mother: ‘My seditious little heart; I knew then, didn’t I, that one day you’d want to burn my book too.’ The Last Days is proof that those who wish can burn all the books in existence but can never destroy the thoughts behind them and the independence of their ideas. They can deny but not erase what is real. ‘Ye shall know the truth,’ it is written in John 8:32 ‘and the truth shall make you free’.
‘The Last Days’ is published tomorrow. Order your copy here (£15.79).
Ali Millar reads from and discusses the book as part of our lineup for this year’s Camp Good Life.
Darran Anderson is the author of ‘Inventory’, which has been shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize, and ‘Imaginary Cities’, chosen as a best book of 2015 by the Financial Times, The Guardian, the A.V. Club, and others. Visit his website here.