The End We Start From
Premise: Following an unprecedented flood that engulfs London and much of the south of England, a first time mother is forced to flee to Wales and eventually up to Scotland. At the same time as learning how to look after her baby, she also has to face up to the terms of her new reality as a refugee in a country that no longer feels like her own.
Somehow, you know that The End We Start From will be a thing of beauty just from the swirling green of the waves on its front cover. Whether you describe it as a fragmentary novella or a lyrical prose poem, it is the quality of the writing that makes Megan Hunter’s debut offering shine and the depth of her insight into everything from motherhood to female relationships, survival to dealing with loss that makes this a book that stays with you long after you have finished the final page.
The story is set out in the first person by an unnamed narrator. We start with the image of her about to give birth – “a lumbering gorilla with a low-slung belly and suspicious eyes” – and we follow her journey as a first-time mother fleeing from an unprecedented flood that appears to engulf London and much of the south of England. Against a backdrop of food shortages and social unrest, she quickly becomes a refugee, absorbed into one of the camps that has sprung up north of the border.
“Maybe this will be how it goes, from now. Every few months fresh knowledge of the past, of how good it was compared to the present.” The narrator is almost resigned to this fate, but at the same time, her baby is growing up before her eyes and giving her something new to cling on to. She describes the first time he laughs, how he attempts to roll over on the mattress as if it is an impossible feat. “It is hard to believe that this is only temporary” she says at one point, “that Z must progress on, to walking and then running.”
The structure of the narrative cleverly compares the baby’s vulnerability to the general helpless state of society following such an overwhelming natural disaster. But whilst the baby’s growth and growing awareness of his existence take centre stage, what is going on in the wider world is never completely explicit. Hunter drip-feeds us with snippets of information. “Here are some of R’s words for what happened: tussle, squabble, slaughter.” That is about as much as we are told, but our imaginations do the rest. Most of us have read/seen enough dystopian fiction to understand that that means rioting, gangs and a loss of the normal moral code.
And, in fact, the whole story is told in this sparse, staccato fashion. Rather than long sumptuous paragraphs that explain every single detail, Hunter retreats into fragmentary snippets. It is conversational. There are thoughts that pop into the narrator’s head almost at random. They are the dots of a puzzle and we, as the reader, are left to fill in the space between. It is a daring and skilled technique to have employed since we could very easily lose the thread of the narrative, but Hunter always gives us just enough that we are able to follow her breadcrumbs, and the experience of reading is enhanced as a result.
On top of this, the characters are simply referred to by a single letter. The baby is Z, the husband is R, the narrator makes a friend called O etc. Hunter herself has stated that she made this decision because she wanted the narrative to feel almost like a survivor’s diary or someone taking notes. And there are two further merits to the technique. First, it makes the story much more universal. This could be anyone affected by a so-called act of god. Secondly, it helps remind the reader of how much we become lost in a crowd. For example, think of the nameless faces of the Syrian refugees we see on our TV screens.
In general, I found this to be an extremely lyrical novel. It is almost poetic in the way that it is structured and the language is beautiful. “Any chance they get, my dreams unfurl in their allotted small space. They are origami, they are Japanese pod hotels. They fit it all in.” The narrator tells us when discussing her rare pockets of snatched sleep. Hunter’s observation of minutiae is breath-taking – “We are told not to panic, the most panic-inducing instruction known to man.” “Behind us, a policeman adjusts his machine gun.” – and she inserts an undercurrent of humour that keeps the reader guessing what emotion they might experience next – “Z wakes up to feed approximately thirty-eight times in the night.” “It is satisfying, like sex or murder.”
All in all, then, this is a stunning debut novel which is daring yet somehow elegantly simplistic, challenging yet somehow reflecting the everyday. It borrows from the literature that precedes it with shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it somehow feels more anchored in a reality that is perhaps closer at hand than we dread to think. It is reassuring, then, that it ends on a note of optimism, leaving the reader with a sense of an adventure lived, and left to imagine how the vast blank of what is to come might fill itself in.
Who might enjoy this book: This is a book for those of us who appreciate the way a book is written as much as the story it tells. It is a book for curling up with and devouring in one sitting.
Other examples of cli-fi literature to sink your teeth into: “Solar” (Ian McEwan), “Flight Behaviour” (Barbara Kingsolver)