I first came across The End We Start From on a LitHub list of new releases in November. The initial description checked a lot of boxes for me: literary fiction, lots of overarching metaphors, beautiful prose. It sounded promising (and the cover looked gorgeous). When I saw it on the shelf in Barnes & Noble, I had to pick it up and decide for myself: To read or not to read?
Preempted by publishers around the world within days of the 2016 London Book Fair, The End We Start From heralds the arrival of Megan Hunter, a dazzling and unique literary talent. Hunter’s debut is a searing original, a modern-day parable of rebirth and renewal, of maternal bonds, and the instinct to survive and thrive in the absence of all that’s familiar.
As London is submerged below floodwaters, 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. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.
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 tale of endurance in the face of ungovernable change.
I don’t love that the summary starts with how great other people say the book is; I’d prefer to decide this for myself.
That said, the rest of the description appeals to me: I love reading books with meta-metaphors (think: Oedipus), especially about birth and renewal. I’m intrigued by the implied minimalism of naming a child “Z.” I enjoy lyrical prose, especially if the plot sounds promising—and this one does.
The cover is exquisitely designed, both visually and textually. The simplicity of the cover denotes, to me, that the text will be conceptual yet simple; precise but dripping with gold. (Okay, maybe that’s extrapolating a bit too directly from the cover image, but still.) The image hints at the basics of the story: a mother and child in a boat at the mercy of the sea as it swallows a city.
“I am hours from giving birth, from the event I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain.”
Nice. There’s a lot to unpack here—this is a really, really good opening line.
Let’s start with the first clause: Birth is a dramatic event! Immediately, I know this book will have something interesting happen in the next few pages. Who is this woman, hours from undergoing a traumatic physical experience, and what story does she have to tell me?
Second, I want to know why—why is this woman pregnant, and why did she think this would never happen to her? Did she think she would never be pregnant, or never give birth? I’m interested in seeing whether the difference between those two questions is relevant.
Third, I’ll assume that R is her partner, possibly the father of her child. Why has he left at such a crucial moment??? Why did he go up a mountain, specifically? What’s the setting? Why is his name just “R”? This immediately makes me want to keep reading to find out who this R is and why he left a very pregnant woman to give birth without him.
First 4 pages
In the first four pages, I am drawn into this narrative. I care about this woman and her unborn baby; what will happen to them as the sea rises around them? And what’s up with the sea rising, anyway? I learn on page four that “the water is rising” and that the woman’s home is in the ominously named “Gulp Zone.” It sounds apocalyptic, and unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I am watching it unfold along with the character; the details of our modern technology, like texting and websites and presumably global warming, make the setting immediate and pressing, as if this could happen to us any day.
I’m drawn to the narrator, who is telling me her story relatively calmly, considering that she’s giving birth in an apocalyptic situation. I want to keep reading about this woman and see what kind of mother she is.
The simple, concise language and paragraph structure reminds me of The Road, but funnier. To hell with paragraphs! I appreciate Hunter’s ability to tell me a story in short, digestible sentences that don’t feel disconnected. Add in humor, and I’m sold. On page one, the pregnant woman tells us that her partner’s friends treat her as if she’s a gorilla; in the next sentence, she yanks that metaphor into reality as she reveals they occasionally pass her a banana. This moment takes up two sentences—just four lines—but Hunter tells us more about this scene, relationships, and tension than a less skilled writer could convey in an entire page. This is quite promising writing.
To read or not to read
Yes, absolutely. The End We Start From looks like a quick but powerful read. I’m eager to see whether this style can be successfully sustained over the course of an entire novel, and I’d love to get to know the characters more I’ll be on the lookout for this book in bookstores over the next month.