Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling
The city of San Siroco is sinking. The basement of Dr. Tamsin Rivers, the arrogant, selfish head of the research team assigned to find the source of the subsidence, is sinking faster. As Tamsin grows obsessed with the distorting dimensions of the room at the bottom of the stairs, she finds a door that didn’t exist before - and one night, it opens to reveal an exact physical copy of her. This doppelgänger is sweet and biddable where Tamsin is calculating and cruel. It appears fully, terribly human, passing every test Tamsin can devise. But the longer the double exists, the more Tamsin begins to forget pieces of her life, to lose track of time, to grow terrified of the outside world. As her employer grows increasingly suspicious, Tamsin must try to hold herself together long enough to figure out what her double wants from her, and just where the mysterious door leads…
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's Press
LENGTH: 320 pages
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Secondary Character(s).
*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book.
LAST TO LEAVE THE ROOM is the story of a generally unlikeable person whose life is utterly upended when the anomaly she's been tracking for her work begins to have strange and personal consequences.
The narrative stays focused on Tamsin. She’s a very focused scientist with relationship-savvy and political awareness as it relates to the flow of power, but she seems not to appreciate or care about the emotional toll of her plans on the people around her. She’s very calculating, as shown in an incident early on where she maneuver someone else into a position of blame after making it seem like a positive thing for them to attempt. Because her personality changes so much over the course of the story, her starting point has to be shown in swift, bold strokes, getting at the essence of her very quickly so that a point of comparison can be established. Moreso than even her research team, her most meaningful interactions are with Lachlan, who is somewhere between a minder and an enforcer. Lachlan's background stays pretty mysterious, with Tamsin, wary of her due to her position of power and her force of personality, Lachlan has technologically enmeshed her and Tamsin's life in a way that’s skirting the edge of what can be excused based on their positions in the company. Especially early on, there’s an uncertainty over what Lachlan might do if she’s displeased, with Tamsin ranging between specific concerns about being fired and a general unease because she can't predict what the consequences might be.
One of the first signs of Tamsin's memory loss, at least the first one that I noticed called out in the text, was about an incident that happened before the book began, which put me in the strange position of not quite being able to confirm whether the memory loss is real. Gradually, however, the discrepancies and lapses in memory become decidedly less subtle as Tamsin deteriorates.
I've loved Starling's previous work, and this swiftly drew me in, holding me to the very end. Beginning with the section, "Nought", the story takes a turn from merely excellent to brilliant. As much as I was fascinated by the beginning, the ending blew me away. I love books that deal with memory distortions, or changes in personality, things that mean that someone who is nominally the same character becomes a very different person throughout a story or a series. It touches on dynamics related to ableism in the context of physical disabilities and brain damage, as well as whether memory is essential to personality.
Graphic/Explicit CW for panic attacks/disorders, memory loss/dementia, gaslighting, abandonment, confinement, emotional abuse, physical abuse, blood, gore, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, torture, murder, death
Moderate CW for ableism, sexual content, kidnapping, mental illness, cursing, bullying, violence, alcohol.
Minor CW for vomit, suicide, animal death.