Dr. Tamsin Rivers has a problem—several in fact. The city of San Siroco is sinking, and her team can’t figure out why. It’s also happening in her basement, causing the walls to pull down and the stairs to stretch. It isn’t long before a door appears, a door that can’t be opened, at least until it’s opened from the other side by an exact copy of herself. But this doppelganger isn’t anything like her. Where Dr. Rivers is cold, calculating, and distrusting, her double is naive, open, and unsuspecting. So Dr. Rivers does what anyone else would do—locks her in a room and conducts tests on her. But as she runs her experiments, she starts losing her memory as gaps of time disappear. She also begins to suffer a terrifying quick onset of agoraphobia. Meanwhile, the city still sinks, and her bosses are growing concerned about her progress on the matter. Can Dr. Rivers keep it together long enough to solve the mysteries plaguing her?
The Last to Leave the Room is Caitlin Starling’s latest, and it’s a haunting ride of a personal nature that left me curious, spooked out, and a little disappointed. It gazes into the abyss of the self, and stares curiously, losing itself to time and the outside world. Starling plays with the relationship to the self, in service of the self, while forsaking what we might owe to others. And while it doesn’t delve into navel gazing, the story feels like it’s missing some inner world boundaries that would make the horror sharper.
Starling is great at blending the sci-fi thriller elements with the creepier interiority Tamsin experiences. There is a general unease that pervades the entirety of the book as Tamsin seems to travel between rooms, without really seeing the outside world. Whether she is several hundred feet underground, or in the bar of a high rise, everything has a similar claustrophobic quality. Starling is able to convey this sense of sameness without much effort, letting you know you should feel it without pointing it out directly through internal narration. That feeling builds through the book, letting it grip you as Tamsin begins to lose control.
As she begins to forget people and lose track of time, her doppelganger steps in to help out. Most of the time, her outreach feels genuine. Tamsin never lets it get to her though, always trying to remain three steps ahead of her unrecognizable copy, who she quickly names Prime. Everything Prime does is framed as if Tamsin was trying to manipulate her own self. Tamsin views everything with a touch of cynicism, allowing her to make the most calculated, ruthless and selfish decisions that she can. So of course Prime must be operating under the same rules. Starling does a great job building the tension, allowing the reader to start coming to the same conclusions Tamsin is through repeated and odd offenses. This is maintained by Starling choosing to stick with a single perspective, regardless of how mean and contemptuous Tamsin is. It keeps the information load low while ramping up the tension.
But I also felt a little let down by the end of The Last To Leave the Room. A lot of the science fiction elements go unexplained and are somewhat dropped halfway through. I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity, especially when it adds to the horror, but some of it felt incomplete. Instead of a “we’ll never understand the mysteries of the universe,” I got a “swept under the rug” vibe. There is a thematic dissonance that I couldn’t quite reconcile between the doppelganger and the sinking rooms and it left me wanting a little more than I got from them together. Paired with the critical eye towards Silicon Valley tech types, I expected something more biting on the sci-fi front and it just never happened.
Luckily, these feelings only really apply to the science fiction elements, as the bits with Tamsin losing her sense of self are sharp and concerning. As Tamsin lies through every single conflict, her ability to trust even herself degrades. She can’t fix it, any of it, no matter how hard she works and isolates herself to work more, the problem just can’t be solved. Tamsin begins to rely on Prime, allowing her to take on her work when she longer is able to. It scares her to let go, but she can’t do anything else without keeping the charade going. And maybe that’s all she’s ever really been.
The Last To Leave The Room dives into what makes a person who they are. Starling sinks her teeth into a toxic person, and chews on the relationship that haunts her the most, the one with herself. It doesn’t pack as strong a punch outside of Tamsin, but Starling definitely hid some brass knuckles under her lab gloves at the right moments. You will have to jog through some set up, but personally, I felt the examination of the self was worth the less fulfilling moments. The unease and claustrophobia felt lovingly captured, in the ways that Starling knows best.
Rating: The Last To Leave The Room – Open The Door, But With Caution.
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.