Title: The End We Start From (2017)
Author: Megan Hunter
Publisher: Picador (UK)/Grove Atlantic (US)
Read: 28th June 2017
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From presents a drowned version of a post-apocalyptic London where its inhabitants are forced on a mass exodus from the capital as living conditions become more treacherous and flood waters rise. As a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s more concerned about one mother’s love for her new born child, and raising him during this exodus, rather than the actual dystopian world they find themselves in – unfortunately, as a childless twentysomething, I can’t say this novel particularly spoke to me in quite the same way as it seems to have done so for many other readers.
“As London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place, shelter to shelter, to a desolate island and back again. The story traces fear and wonder, as the baby’s small fists grasp at the first colors he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds. Written with poise and poeticism, The End We Start From is an indelible and elemental first book—a lyrical vision of the strangeness and beauty of new motherhood, and a portentous tale of endurance in the face of ungovernable change.” (Synopsis from the publisher)
“R holds Z’s upright body, his transformed self. They touch noses. Eskimo kiss, goes a phrase from long ago. Perhaps this is reunion, or the beginning of it.”
In concept, Megan Hunter’s debut is chilling – it presents a vision of a post-apocalyptic London which has been hit by flood waters, and is slowly forcing Londoners to leave their homes behind and head north in order to try to escape the flood. It’s a story of exodus set against the story of birth amidst destruction, figuratively and literally, because the main character must survive this apocalypse with a newborn baby in tow. Readers see the baby’s growth over the days, weeks, and months, and the special maternal bond which exists and is not altered at all by the reality of the horrible apocalypse which surrounds this mother and child. Interludes of various creation stories interject amidst the main domestic narrative of a new mother and child provide the obvious link between Hunter’s narrative and Biblical themes of birth, destruction, and rebirth.
However, for all its interesting concept, I found the pacing and style to be much too forced for my liking. There was something artistic and abstract and purposeful about it that rubbed me up the wrong way. The writing was undoubtedly accomplished, and I can see that Megan Hunter has a background not only in English literature but specifically in writing poetry. I can well believe that, because this read a tad like an extended narrative poem, written in free verse, and it is a style of poetry that I just don’t “get” the same way that other readers do – it’s just not to my personal taste, so once I realised this novel was in that vein, I’m afraid it was an insurmountable issue for me.
Comparisons can be, I think, fairly drawn between The End We Start From and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – both novels feature a parent and child dynamic and story of survival amidst a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape. Like The Road, in The End We Start From we are never permitted to learn the full names of the characters, nor are they described with particular attention or detail – a lot of the work must be done by the reader’s own imagination. The writing style is sparse in both but, for my money, I didn’t quite get along with this in Megan Hunter’s debut – I didn’t understand the claims of lyricism and profundity that a lot of reviewers and readers praised in this novel, to me it was just too abstracted and fragmentary, it didn’t feel like a sustained or particularly nuanced novel. It felt more like the vague impression or draft of a novel, rather than a finished product. For me, it just didn’t have enough pages in order to for a reader to really connect with the characters and to go somewhere. I didn’t feel anything for the mother and child, perhaps due to my own lack of life experience that prevented this story from really hitting home for me. Really, the sparse style just wasn’t my cup of tea.
In summary, this book is beautifully produced, and the overriding concept of (re)birth after destruction is an intriguing idea, it’s just a shame that for me, ultimately, the execution of the idea fell vastly short of all its hype.
“How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along”
If you would like to pick up a copy of The End We Start From, it is out now in the UK in any place that sells books and online – see the UK publisher’s website for more details. It will be released in the US in November 2017. Thank you to Grove Atlantic (the book’s US publishers) for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via Netgallery, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles.
The quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.