Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
The first thing to say about The End We Start From is it’s not a standard book of fictional prose. The story is told through beautifully-crafted sentences, isolated like islands on the page. Shots of consciousness, captured like polaroids. Each scene is built from just a handful of these, and there are two or three scenes per page. A flip through this slight book’s pages might suggest it’s poetry rather than prose, and each word feels suitably thoughtful and crafted. With its beautiful artwork too, it’s an exquisite object, filled with exquisite words. One to indulge in the hardback format, treasure, and re-read time and again.
Because The End We Start From works on many layers and takes its time to sink in, it’s a book to mull over, and learn from, rather than be swept away by. On the most immediate and personal level, it’s about new motherhood. It opens with the words: “I am hours from giving birth…” and charts, with wonderful intimacy and freshness, the experience of sharing your world with an entirely dependent human for the first time. But baby Z is born at a time of catastrophe and chaos: the second level in the book is the story of London submerged under rising waters and its citizens becoming refugees; of what happens to people when resources are suddenly limited and how to survive that. And scattered through all of this is another layer of story again – creation and destruction tales drawn from myths and religions worldwide, dropped through the text in italics. These three layers sit alongside each other with equal resonance, sometimes throwing one another into contrast.
For me the most effective element by far was the portrayal of motherhood, I have rarely read anything so bracingly familiar. The narrator is so immersed in her experience as a new mother it completely overshadows the chaos around her. Cut off from everything, and everyone, familiar, and stripped of the modern accessories of parenthood – the lemon-painted nursery underwater and the “complicated Baby Play System…all its attachments floating free,” – she reverts to the fleshy and primal. Their relationship is one of nipple and skin and interdependency. She reflects, “I have started to think of myself as a bear, with my young clinging to my neck.”
But this strand is also packed with a knowing humor, from the throwaway – “I am a geriatric primigravida, but I don’t look it,” – to her description of labour, “Between the waves of disembowelling wrench the world is shining. I feel like Aldous Huxley on mescaline.”
Some aspects of parenting are different in this new world: sleeping through the night – because no one sleeps through the night anymore. Some things the same: her guilt – when his very first roll rolls him right off the bed, “I am a terrible mother, I think, nestling his unbroken body into my own,” her fear – “The scenarios for his death are the most vivid day-dreams I have ever had.” It’s strangely validating to see the everyday obsessions of parenthood so beautifully written. And these quiet, private moments happen amidst /because of /despite the global chaos of the overriding story.
While the details of motherhood are magnified, the intense action of what is happening around her is muted, pushed into the background. What has actually happened is an unspoken question, climate change is unmentioned, but ever present. Some facts are offered: waters have risen and much of London is swallowed – “A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast,” – people flee, they fight for food, for survival. The world is chaos, but the drama of the book is presented through the narrator’s detachment, there is no dialogue, and even when she’s obviously not emotionally detached, she is instead resigned to the inevitable horror, “And yes I scream and hold their clothes and tell them not to go. And yes they go.”
This distance is enhanced by the naming of characters by their initial, rather than name. Her partner is R, her friend, O. But stripped of names these characters’ stories are freed to become universal, their reactions are the inevitable reactions to this dystopian future. The astute details of the motherhood observations serve this purpose too; they are universal in their precision, while the wider story becomes universal in its distance. And so The End We Start From fast becomes a parable, a tale of what might happen to us, a warning. We’re left to question how this very familiar world could so easily slip into a new destruction myth, to join the dark tales running through the book in italics.
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at www.thosepreciousstolenmoments.com. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin
Lucy interviewed Megan Hunter for our BookBuzz section – read the Q&A here.
Megan Hunter, The End We Start From (Picador, 2017) 978-1509839100, 140pp., hardback.
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