A woman gives birth. London is flooded. What more do you need to know?
The End We Start From deserves a concise yet memorable review. Alas, I lack Megan Hunter’s remarkable way with words. This short novel only took me a day to read, yet I’m certain the memory of it will linger far longer.
Typically, stories that centre around natural disaster and societal collapse tend to go into some detail about the cause of said catastrophe, and its impact on the population at large (even if that impact is simply mass extinction). Think Station Eleven, The Road, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The End We Start From throws that convention out of the window. In her novel, Hunter doesn’t reveal why London has flooded; her unnamed narrator merely mentions hearing a “list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast.” Her attention is entirely taken up by Z, her newborn son. As she and Z are whisked to rural safety by her husband R, she says little about the chaos they undoubtedly witness. Instead, we hear all about Z’s “tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap.”
The effect of what is unspoken, deliberately ignored, is devastating. Hunter’s scarcity of language speaks volumes about the speaker’s experiences. You could interpret her silences to be evidence of post-natal depression, or else a coping mechanism in the face of the violent reality of the post-flood world. For the most part, I took it to be a representation of the all-consuming realities of new motherhood. Suddenly, just as outside life has been irrevocably changed, so too has her own world view been turned on its head. All she can focus on now is Z and his safety; everything else is background noise. Such is the brilliant way the book is written, I don’t think any interpretation would be incorrect.
If Hunter doesn’t say much, what she does say packs a punch. The speaker’s descriptions of motherhood are laced with references to water, as if she is haunted by what she has seen (but not related). Describing her labour, she says:
I growl more and more, and finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.
Later, after being alone for some time, they find a refugee camp discover and what day it is. The speaker tries “to feel the solidity of the date beneath me”, as though without either outside support or the mundane reality of everyday life she has felt untethered, floating. New motherhood, coupled with the crisis, has felt to her like a flood.
While Hunter’s writing style is undoubtedly moving, the real success of The End We Start From is Z. He is the counterpoint to the titular “end”: with his mother, we celebrate each milestone he reaches during the impossible inevitability of his early development. It is clichéd to label a child a miracle, but as Hunter threads through her narrative snippets of creation myths from around the world, you can’t shake the sense that Z is a miracle of creation all on his own.
As short as it is, I have no doubt that The End We Start From will be one of my favourite books of the year. I urge everyone to pick up a copy and spend a quiet afternoon in the company of Z and his mother, a pair who persist amidst unspeakable chaos.