Fiction – paperback; Picador; 144 pages; 2018.
Apparently British actor Benedict Cumberbatch enjoyed Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From so much his production company bought the film rights. It’s easy to see why he was so enamoured of this debut novella: it’s powerful, evocative and lyrical.
Set some time in the future, it follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. The woman’s journey is complicated by the fact that she has just given birth to her first child, a boy, and all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern.
Z is real, with his tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap. The news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore.
When her husband fails to return from an outing in search of supplies, the woman is forced to travel alone with her newborn, setting up home in a refugee camp and, much later, on a secluded island.
But this isn’t a book that you read for the plot. It’s essentially a “mood piece” written in sparse sentences, one per paragraph, that resemble lines of poetry. Indeed, I’d describe it as a prose novella, because it feels very much like reading one long poem. (No surprise, then, that the author is also a poet.)
Everything is scant on detail. There are no names, beyond Z for the baby, R for the husband, G for the mother-in-law and so on. And we never really know what’s going on in the world outside because the book is very much focused on the relationship between the mother and her son.
As much as I loved the beautiful sentences in this novel, the oh-so perfect word choice and the lovely cadence and tempo of the prose, the motherhood analogy soon wore thin. The message — that maternal love remains undiminished even in the most dire of circumstances — began to feel a bit laboured. I think I just wanted more from this book — and I was never going to get it.
That said, The End We Start From has much to recommend it, not least the exquisite beauty of the prose and the lovely, languid nature of the storytelling. It’s certainly not your typical dystopian novel: our narrator is caught inside her own experience, raising a child and is focussed solely on her domestic realm. It’s a haunting and elusive tale of survival — but it’s also one about hope and of savouring quiet, often fleeting, moments of joy.