Sometimes I read for the storytelling, sometimes for the writing. With The End We Start From I suspected it was going to be the latter – Megan Hunter is a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. The book also sounded as if it fell into dystopian territory, something I usually avoid like the plague, no pun intended, but once I’d stared reading I found myself drawn into Hunter’s story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.
Our narrator is in labour with just a few panicky friends in attendance, her husband somewhere up a mountain not expecting their child to make its entrance yet. All goes well but three days later our narrator, her husband R and their child Z must leave: the waters that have been inexorably rising are now threatening to engulf London. They flee north, taken in by R’s parents. As the flood spreads the country is seized by panic. R and his parents’ foraging trips take longer and longer until, one day, only R and his father return, then several weeks later, only R. Caught up in the tiny intimate world of mother and newborn, the news an irritating TV buzz, our narrator worries that her milk will fail. As the situation deteriorates, R is persuaded to drive over the border to Scotland where they first live in their car, then a refugee camp which R tolerates for a few months before leaving. At the urging of her new friends, our narrator moves on again, eventually finding shelter on an island until she decides that it’s time to find R. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him.
The End We Start From is a mere 140 pages in length – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work. The language is arresting, sometimes stark, occasionally lyrical. Flashes of humour shine out. Hard not to fill this review with a stream of quotes but I’ll try to make do with a few to give you a flavour: ‘G is nowhere, and the kitchen is full of her, her face shining out from the kettle, the shape of her waist wrapped around jars’; ’Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through them’; ‘At night, my stomach reaches up to ask for more’. Loosely, and intermittently, woven through our narrator’s story is that of the Ark, a thread which didn’t work so well for me. I found myself not reading those sections so carefully, eager to return to the narrator and Z. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence. It ends on a ringing note of optimism.