This reading group guide for The Last Witness includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Glenn Meade. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Living in New York with her pianist husband, Carla Lane has no clue that she is the last lucid witness to the brutality that occurred during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s. But after members of the Serbian mafia assassinate her husband, memories of her childhood come flooding back. Carla learns she was found clutching her mother’s diary after her camp had been liberated, a memory she repressed after years of intensive therapy. Once her past is revealed, Carla decides she must avenge her husband’s death and the likely deaths of her parents and young brother—a quest that leads her face-to-face with hardened war criminals who have their own form of justice and shocking secrets. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “And you, a stranger whose war this never was, are buried among them” (10). So begins the Prologue to The Last Witness
, a text written in the second person, in the voice of the dead David Joran. What is the effect of the direct address “you”? As the reader, do you feel implicated in the story—the war, the unmarked grave? Does the “you” make the story feel more intimate?
2. Revisit the scene on pages 53–54 when Paul Lane discovers his dog’s throat has been cut. Is this act of brutality an omen of events to come in the novel? Compare this omen with Carla’s nightmares. Do both act as warnings of the same moment to come in The Last Witness
? What moment do you think that might be?
3. On page 72, Paul warns Carla not to pursue Jan’s murders because they are “a law unto themselves” (72)—no one, not even the police, are safe from their wrath. Do you blame Paul for his decision to stay out of the fray? Is he making the “right” choice? Why or why not?
4. Discuss the horrors described at the rape camp where Carla, Luka, and Lana were imprisoned. How can such horrors be comprehended? Was there any silver lining to Carla’s experience at the camp?
5. “The world must know. Not only what has happened, but to take hope, that the human spirit has a power that endures” (154), writes Lana Joran in her diary shortly before her execution. Which characters are examples of such an enduring spirit? Is Lana? Why or why not?
6. Do you think that Alma’s memory condition is a result of her trauma at the rape camp? In your opinion, does Carla or Alma cope better with the past? Is forgetting better than repressing and later seeking revenge?
7. Discuss Ronnie’s character. Would you consider him a good man? If so, what motivates him to do the right thing? Consider what being “good” means in light of being a special agent for the army and a known killer.
8. In what way(s) does love influence the characters in the story? Consider Carla, the Jorans, Jan, Angel, Ronnie, and Mila Shavik in your response. In what ways does love—particularly for one’s family—influence these characters’ decisions?
9. Attempt to answer Carla’s question to herself about Angel that occurs on page 276: “How could she live with Mila Shavik? How could she live with a man who was a killer, a brutal, wanted war criminal?”.Is it possible that Angel both loves and despises Mila? Have you ever felt this way?
10. Why is Ronnie so insistent that Carla should not commit murder? Do you agree with him when he says, “once we take a life it’s as if there’s an avenging angel watching over our shoulder, ready to repay us” (337)? Why or why not?
11. Throughout the story Angel references her Stockholm syndrome—the condition in which hostages feel sympathy toward their captors—in order to explain “her contrasting emotions” (392) for Mila Shavik. Do any other characters in the story suffer from this condition?
12. What does Ronnie mean when he tells Carla that he sees her as “a woman who’s torn between the devil and the deep blue sea” (408)? In this metaphor, who or what is the devil in Carla, and who or what is the deep blue sea? Do you agree with Ronnie’s assessment of Carla’s character?
13. A possible theme emerges on page 512 when Mila tells Carla that her mother once wrote to him “that good and evil, like love and hate, are so close that they’re chained together in the soul.” This tension between good and evil certainly drives Mila Shavik, but does it affect other characters, too? Consider Carla, Lana, and Angel in your response.
14. Why does Mila Shavik choose to not reveal himself to Carla in the end? In your response, consider the title of the story—The Last Witness
. Is Carla the last witness only to the horrors of late-twentieth-century Bosnia? Do you think she is also the last witness to the real Mila Shavik, the man he was supposed to be? Is the title a metaphor for Mila’s relationship with Lana and his would-be relationship with his daughter?
15. Discuss the ending of the novel. Who or what is “the light of one small candle” (551) in Carla’s life? Who is the light that keeps the darkness away from you? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Learn more about the mass genocide that occurred in the 1990s after the fall of Yugoslavia by watching together the BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia
(1995). Afterward, discuss the atrocities portrayed in The Last Witness
with those featured in the documentary. Does Carla’s story seem typical or atypical, compared with the stories of those in the documentary? What moments touched you the most? Does the documentary remind you of other events in history?
2. When Baize finally tells Carla the truth about her past, she uses photographs she had kept hidden for years to help spark Carla’s memory of her lost parents and brother. In fact, it is partly through photographs that Carla begins to piece together the lost fragments of her childhood, and it is mainly through photographs that Carla learns what her parents were like. But, as Carla says on page 170, “photographs only offered a glimpse, and not the whole truth. They never captured the true spirit of the moment, the soul behind the image, or the real people behind the smiles.” Collect photos that capture a glimpse of your biography to date. Put the photos together in a photo album or slide show, and share with your group. Are you able to fully capture your life in pictures? Discuss the benefits—and limits—of the photographs of your life. A Conversation with Glenn Meade 1. In the past, Publishers Weekly has praised your work as “the next Da Vinci Code.” Do you feel any pressure to keep the critics happy as you write? Would you characterize The Last Witness as a thriller, like The Da Vinci Code?
Always, as a writer, my desire is to say something about what matters to me. To have an interest in the characters, story, and theme I’m writing about. And usually to shine a light on some dark or wounded corner of the human heart that interests me. That’s my job, really—not to worry about the critics.
And I’ve long ago accepted the words of a schoolteacher of mine: “One man’s dog is another man’s sausage.” I know I can’t please everyone. The Last Witness
is not anything like The Da Vinci Code
. But it is a thriller, and a very emotional, powerful story that I strongly felt needed to be told. 2. The Last Witness is based on true events. Briefly describe your meeting with the woman who inspired Carla’s character. How much overlap between the two stories exists?
Some years ago I sat on a cafe terrace in Croatia’s beautiful ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Bullet holes still gouged the walls from the Yugoslav wars that had once plunged the region into the kind of cruel genocide not seen since the Nazi holocaust.
A young woman sat down nearby. We talked. Her name was Marina, and America was her adopted homeland—her parents had met in Dubrovnik in the early 1980s, fallen in love, and married.
What happened in Yugoslavia more than twenty years ago, the world knows about—a genocidal war of such brutality it cost almost a quarter of a million lives and created more than a million refugees.
Marina, then eleven, and her mother and brother were rounded up and forcibly separated from their father by Serb paramilitaries. Imprisoned with her mother and brother, the family endured the unspeakable horror of a rape camp for many months, in conditions as cruel as Auschwitz. The day the camp was finally liberated, Marina was found wandering the outskirts of a nearby town by U.S. Special Forces—lost, alone, and so badly traumatized that she was unable to speak for days.
Adopted by one of the U.S. officers who found her, she had come back to mother’s homeland hoping that a sample of her DNA would find a match to any of the many thousands of bodies discovered in mass graves—almost all of them innocent civilians killed in the fighting; men and boys, women, and children—among them her family.
Marina’s was a harrowing tale. What angered me was that I learned so many of those responsible for the terror and bloodshed and genocide remain free from prosecution; like the Nazis of old, often sheltered by sympathizers or protected by new names and fabricated pasts, and some of them living in distant lands. The Last Witness
is not entirely Marina’s story, but much of it is based on real events. It is also about the cruel and inhuman choices that war sometimes forces upon its victims and the echoes of their consequences. And perhaps more than a little of the narrative’s moral is how I would have liked Marina’s story to have ended, if justice truly prevailed. 3. You’ve written many successful books before this novel. Was writing this novel a different experience from the others? Why or why not?
Every book is different. I’ll admit, this one took a lot out of me emotionally. Having to research the brutal events in the death/rape camps in the former Yugoslavia was a sobering, painful experience. However, what was also striking was the powerful human will to survive in such places, to bear up to the most incredible deprivation, humiliation, and pain. 4. There are arguably many heroes in The Last Witness—Ronnie, Regan, Carla, Jan, and Mila, to name a few. Ultimately, whose story is this? Whom would you name as the hero?
It’s Lena’s story, and I think she’s the real hero. Enduring all she did in the death camp; striving to keep her children alive in the midst of such brutality. Yet all the while she still kept her faith in humanity’s essential goodness. Love remained her moral compass all throughout the terrible tragedy. To me, that makes her a heroic figure. 5. Do you personally identify with any of the characters in the novel?
I guess you have to. As Flaubert once replied when asked if he identified with his character, Madame Bovary, “But of course. I am
It’s the same for all writers—something of you goes into all your characters, insofar as you have to understand their composition: their traits, weaknesses, motives, drives. 6. You were born in Ireland but live currently in Knoxville, Tennessee. How does living in the two countries and cultures influence your writing? Do you consider yourself an Irish writer, an American writer, or both?
I still live in Ireland but spend most of my free time in Knoxville and the rest of it traveling—wherever I need to for research. At times, I feel like I’m a wandering gypsy. As for the type of writer I am, it never crosses my mind. Living in Ireland certainly helps—lots of soft, rainy days usually keep me indoors and at my desk. 7. Why did you choose to have Mila Shavik and the other Serbian war criminals live in Cape May, New Jersey? Does this seaside town have any significance to you? Do you think it is ironic that these hardened criminals live in such a beautiful, peaceful place?
There’s a large Russian émigré community in New Jersey. Lots of Serbs live there, too. Both émigré groups have a common Slavic language, Eastern Orthodox religion, and many historical connections. The Serbian and Russian mafias sometimes exploit those connections to their mutual benefit. As for the irony of hardened, successful criminals living in nice places, it’s not that unusual—criminals like nice things, too, which is often why they rob jewelry stores, or banks, or commit fraud. I once met a very rich London-born criminal from very humble beginnings who used the proceeds of international crime to buy himself a vast manor house in Ireland. He lived the high life of a country squire, fox-hunting and partying with his wealthy neighbors—until an Interpol warrant finally caught up with him. 8. Why did you choose to have Mila Shavik not reveal the truth to Carla at the end of the novel? In your opinion, is Mila the character who grows the most throughout The Last Witness? Why or why not?
Shavik is certainly one of the characters whose arc changes dramatically. By his not revealing the truth to Carla, I wanted it to show that despite Shavik’s brutal background, he still had a glimmer of good in his heart. He was a damaged soul—a victim of “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”
For him not to destroy Carla’s life by revealing the truth of their relationship—which would have shocked and hurt her—redeemed Shavik in some small way. That made him a more noble character. 9. Is there a person or place that inspires you to write? Where do you go to compose your novels?
Anywhere that’s peaceful, quiet, remote—but still has a good internet signal. In Ireland, it’s a place called Delgany—by the sea, the mountains as a backdrop, and nearby a quaint little village that seems not to have changed little in a hundred years. A stone’s throw away is a cottage where Sir Walter Raleigh once stayed, and the ruins of an old Celtic church that dates from the seventh century. And then there’s the beach that stretches for miles. . . . It’s about the perfect place. 10. What is next for you as a writer? Can we expect to hear any more about Carla, Ronnie, and the gang?
That might be interesting. But right now, I’m working on two novels that have my attention. Which one I ought to finish first, only time—or my agent—will tell.