Book review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

It is safe to say that the end, and indeed the beginning of the world, have never been rendered so poetically, or daringly, as in The End We Start From by English author Megan Hunter.

A poet whose work has been shortlisted for illustrious awards such as the Bridport Prize, Hunter has taken a cataclysmic event, one usually rendered in tones purely fearful and destructive, and given it a poetic sheen, one that also talks of the possibility of life not being extinguished, but taking a bold, if trembling foot forward.

The sense of newness and possibility comes not from the protagonist herself who begins this mix of poem and novella – each paragraph is a short, sharp, deliciously-worded picture of some occurrence, feeling or dynamic, short on deep, complex narrative, rich with sense and sensation – but from the birth of her son Z (no one has full names) which takes place just as an almighty flood swamps London, sending its inhabitants fleeing up towards the relative safety of mountainous Scotland.

“[S and J] watch me from the corner of the room, as though I am an unpredictable animal, a lumbering gorilla with a low-slung belly and suspicious eyes. Occasionally they pass me a banana.

“They try to put Match of the Day on. I growl. I growl more and more, and finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” (P. 1)

Thanks to Hunter’s sharp eye for detail and her immersive sense of experience and authentic conjecture, we are plunged into the maelstrom of fear and doubt that assail the new mother who does her best to give her son some sense of normalcy in the middle of a world that is now anything but.

Every step of the way, we are made to feel as if civilisation has ended, with fire following flood, death following food shortages and nothing even remotely like you, if you’re new parent figuring out your life just as the old one ends, would want it to be.

The End We Start From thus talks about the intensely familiar and routine, wonderful and amazing, the birth of a child in the midst of circumstances that defy normal life to even try and its head slightly above the parapet.

The world into which baby Z is born, and grows over one year, is fractured, vicious, starved, swamped and messy, a chaotic twisting of the established order that confronts his parents, who end up separated for much of this strangely beautiful book, every step of the way.

 

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

 

Contrasting the iron force will of the apocalypse to put a definitive end to things with the mother’s determination that Z will be a participant in nothing so brutal and final – indeed as she meets up with other mothers in refugee camps in Scotland (where they are safe from a suggested, bloody war down in England), she hopes that life for her son will be as normal as possible; perhaps vainly but this hope sustains her – Hunter gives up a vividly stark picture of love stubbornly pushing through in a time where self-survival, deprivation and cruel self-interest rise to the top.

There are those who band together, of course, and the scenes where the mother is on an island off the Scottish coast with her friend O, her child, and the family who takes them in, all similarly lettered, not named, are exquisitely evocative and like all the book, profoundly emotionally resonant in ways that you will readily identify with.

“At the straightest edge of the world I think I can see a hulking thickness, a black mass growing. The mainland, I like to think.

It hovers over the water like a boat. It grows, I imagine, blooms rows of houses with lit windows and lives inside. If I squint, I might make out R [her husband], waving.

Carried by the waves, he is coming towards us. He is moving away.” (P. 91)

For all these rich and gorgeously-expressed emotions – it is odd to think of the descriptions of things so terrible as gorgeous but in Hunter’s deftly-insightful and expressive hands they are, a richly-rewarding tapestry of the good and the bad, the hopeful and the most definitely not, all wrapped up together in the most elegant, the most lovely conveyance of everything human, and some things not.

For all that though, and it is mesmerisingly superb, there is sense, flowing from the sparseness of exposition and prose that lends the book an emotional remoteness.

Even as you are introduced to emotions that roll with hope and oblivion, mercy and predation, new life and death, and they are beautiful in the extreme and in quiet, intimate ways too, you feel removed from the characters, able to feel what they feel, and understand and identify with it, but cut off too, the poetic expression both an entry and barrier at once.

The bluntness of the narrative is both a positive and a negative – on one hand, you realise all too quickly what is happening at various points, with one breathless paragraph enough to seal the deal; unfortunately this also means that any desire you have to find out more is snuffed out without reservation or apology, leaving you constantly wanting more, forever wondering what else took place.

It’s not a deal breaker of course, and The End We Came From, itself a creatively expressive title of beauty and meaning, remains a singularly unique sensory experience that will take on a journey where the newness of life fights ferociously and with great love, hope and compassion for supremacy with the end of everything, and you hope, just as the protagonist does, that all that hoping will not be in vain.

 

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