Monday, February 04, 2019

Book Review: THE LAST TIME I LIED

Title: The Last Time I Lied
Author: Riley Sager
Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 370
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐






The title of the book, The Last Time I Lied, is a blend of guilt and contrition, the recurrent themes of one of my favourite reads this year.

The Prologue is in the second person present tense point of view of 13-year-old Emma Davis when she wakes up early in the morning at Camp Nightingale and, after a fruitless search, realizes that Allison, Natalie and Vivian, her roommates in Dogwood, the lodge she is assigned to at the camp, who walked out of the camp the previous night, have not returned.

Subsequently there is a furore in the media, and a great scandal, and the camp is closed down. The bodies of the three girls are never found, even though the entire area is searched. The tragedy alters all their lives irrevocably.

Emma misses Vivian. As the only child of parents who never showed affection, Emma got something approximating that from Vivian. But Vivian could also be a bitch, catty and manipulative in her desire to have her own way.

Fifteen years later at the first gallery showing of her paintings, Emma has an unexpected visitor, Francesca Harris-White, rich heiress in her 70s, the owner and manager of Camp Nightingale, better known as Franny.

Franny has an interesting proposition for Emma. Return to Camp Nightingale for six weeks as a painting coach. Anxious to get closure, Emma agrees to go back to the camp, which is being reopened after 15 years. The return dredges up memories and flashbacks, at once happy and painful and guilt-ridden.

This time too, she is reassigned to stay at Dogwood with three teenagers, Sasha, Krystal and Miranda. Now Emma has a chance to find out what happened to the three girls. Will she succeed in finding out the truth about what happened in the past? Or will tragedy strike again?

By the end of Part One comes a stunning shocker that turns the story on its head. Will Emma get the closure she desperately needs? Or will her guilt be finally revealed?


Part One is called Two Truths, while Part Two is called And a Lie, after the game that Vivian introduces to Emma at camp, the game which not only helps the four roommates reveal truths about themselves but also helps them understand how and what somebody might choose to lie about. It is a game that Vivian excels in, one that Emma learns to use to her advantage. I found this game most intriguing for its possibilities for invoking truth as much as for exhibiting willful deceit.

The writing is dark, evoking mystery and curiosity on our part. The narrative shifts between now in the present tense and 15 years ago in the past tense.

The memories help us to piece things together, and we learn a lot of things, not all in Emma’s favour. But the whole truth can be hard to grasp when it is being dished out by someone who knows how to trick with it.

The mood that the author evokes at Camp Nightingale is that of mystery, intrigue and dread, complete with the adventure and fun of camp life.

Following each memory in the present, Emma takes us back to the actual memory in the past.



Most of the characters in this book stood out for the right reasons.

There is Emma, who has her own secrets. She comes across as a totally unreliable narrator. She’s been institutionalized for mental instability, her mother is an alcoholic, and she herself has a tendency to lose control after a few drinks. There were many aspects relating to Emma that I found uncomfortable. She admits that she is responsible for the disappearance of the girls; she just won’t tell us how. She is haunted by the girls. Surely that is admission of guilt enough?

Franny has the money to buy her way out of complicated situations, but can she be trusted? Taking our cues from Emma, we aren’t sure. And yet Franny is genuinely sincere about her love for the outdoors, and her desire to give the city girls a taste of life and adventure in the open.

For all her heightened drama, Vivian grew on me. She made things happen. Nothing stayed stagnant around her. Even though she was the sort of person who could go to any lengths to ensure that she remained in control, she was also capable of showering attention on a younger girl, bereft of affection.

In contrast, the other two girls, Natalie and Allison are bland. We hardly notice them. Like Emma, we are swept away by the lure of Vivian. Fifteen years later, it is as if Sasha, Krystal and Miranda have stepped into the shoes of the older girls, with Miranda trying hard, but not quite succeeding, to be a queen bee.

The chemistry between Theo and Emma grows slowly. Emma is never sure of Theo. Though she considers him her friend, his loyalty to his mother is undeniable. And she wonders how far he would go to protect his mother and hide her secrets.


There were several lines that are worth quoting. Here’s a sample:

a sight that reminds me of air hissing from a punctured tire.

The descriptions: It’s a greenhouse in the same way Grand Central is a train station.

Mrs Harris-White doesn’t like messes.

Every woman is crazy.

Mindy, the fiancee, of Franny’s younger son, is the kind of girl who wields a smile like a scythe. I didn’t like her either.


The Last Time I Lied is a tightly plotted delicious blend of crime thriller, psychological thriller and ghost story, with mental instability thrown in for good measure. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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