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Ali Millar's The Last Days

M. J. Nicholls

The Last Days
Ali Millar
July 2022, Ebury Press (UK)


t was 2010 in leafy Blackford, Edinburgh, when a Jehovah’s Witness and his two restless preschoolers appeared on my doorstep to serve me their particular mangling of the New Testament. I summarily rebuffed my unwanted visitors by stating plainly that I was an atheist unlikely to be swayed by their flimsy pamphlets, and anyway wasn’t it written in Leviticus that [some clever petard-hoisting zinger]. Correction. I summarily rebuffed them by pretending I had lamb on the stove that required careful monitoring lest my shanks lose their succulence. A moment later, the fellow re-chapped the door to ask if his pained-looking young daughter could use my toilet. I stood aside as the pair occupied the bathroom for ten minutes, leaving an unholy stink in the room upon exit. My abiding memory of God’s Chosen People, then, is the sorrowful eyes of a bored toddler upon leaving an excremental whiff in my small flat, thereby helping to create my strained yet apt analogy that the Witnesses politely invade your inner sanctum, stay there for far too long, and leave a lingering shitty stench that never seems to fade.

In Millar’s lyrical memoir of leaving the cult, we follow her long and painful upbringing as her mercurial mother whelps her into their wacky nontrinitarian ways. Across a series of intimately written chapters, where the narrative voice seamlessly captures the troubled interior of her younger self as she moves from innocence to rebellion, Millar explores the suffocating blandness and the pernicious weirdness of their beliefs (refusing blood transfusions or meat that has not been bled in Jehovah’s preferred manner). The most shocking section sees Millar, then married with child in her late twenties, interrogated by two “elders” about her marital transgressions, an excruciating and humiliating scene in which the sinister creeps clearly revel in the erotic detail.

In the Guardian review, Rachael Cooke wrote on how she strained to “fully sympathise with her [Millar’s] inability to leave the sect”, and that she “could not quite picture her mother, or her husband, or the elders”. This misunderstands the writer’s stylistic intent, methinks. The people with whom Millar should share a natural intimacy are kept at a constant distance, mirroring the distance at which these emotionally stunted people keep their children or partners, reserving their maximum love for Jehovah and serving up criticisms of ungodly actions as a substitute for that unoffered love. The recall of her sexual discovery with Original Simon, her first lover, and the chapters exploring her nascent teenage rebellion bring that missing rush of intensity and warmth that Cooke bemoans back into the prose. How the Witnesses continually break free from their tethers of propriety and temporarily live, only to find themselves snapped back into familiar self-suppressing behaviours, is repeatedly fascinating. Cooke also suggests “that her childhood hurts too much to be properly accounted for”, i.e. Cooke’s inability to emotionally connect with the book is entirely the fault of the author and her unreadiness to properly tell her story at the correct emotional bandwidth for maximum literary truthiness.

Millar’s narrative non-fiction debut explores how the tentacles of a cult run deep, in an elegant, startling, and sublimely hewn style.


M. J. Nicholls