Huge moments revealed in spoonfuls of spare poeticism
The End We Start From
By Megan Hunter Picador, £9.99
Motherhood is a new land. A strange, unpredictable zone where the life before resides firmly in the rearview mirror. The unnamed narrator of Megan Hunter’s debut, The End We Start From, is married, pregnant and happy. Everything about her life is on the cusp: a child, a future, a right to contentment. Until, that is, an environmental disaster strikes and London is flooded. As her son, Z, tumbles into a world, the waters are rising and a new dystopia replaces normality.
The narrator and her husband, named only as R, live in “the Gulp Zone” and must leave the city. Hunter reveals huge moments with spoonfuls of information. Supermarket panics cause crushes and death, food dries up with alarming swiftness and terror beings to infect people’s dreams: “The crowds flatten the pillow, they crush the sheets into the crest of a wave. They carry the night away hour by hour.”
White-tented camps appear on the hills, serving porridge made with milk, and later water. Possessions are stolen, crying babies are scowled at, not lovingly chin-chucked. People are on the move in huge numbers and the once respectable middle-class become refugees in their own country. Hunter is shrewd about how we take our good luck, our homes and our loved ones for granted, when they are fragile things, only on loan to us. “Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.”
What’s startling about the narrative is how quickly civic life breaks down. In an era where we’re assured of disaster management plans and rehearsed response situations, this is a world where no one has anybody’s back, except for those they hold close. But tenderness still abounds, particularly in how the narrator deals with her own kind of flood, of waters breaking and a new infant.
Motherhood is an i mmersive experience and Hunter is brilliant on the
Hunter traces – with expert precision and such lyricism – who we are when life is minimised
urgency of it. The country is at a standstill and all people can do is wait and survive – so she watches her son, taking in every part of him, wondering about the new world she has brought him into. “This is how his body curls: like a shrimp, like a spring, like a tiny human yet to straighten out.”
R, for reasons of his own, feels he must leave, and mother and son eventually depart with another family to live on an island. She reminds herself not to get too close to the other husband, and watches as food dwindles, and baby transforms into boy.
The End We Start From is less concerned with plot and story, and the reader rarely wonders where this will all end. The story is of living moment to moment. Hunter traces – with expert precision and such lyricism – who we are when life is minimised. How we respond under pressure, when time is measured in terms of where the next meal will come from.
Using initials and a nameless protagonist heightens the sense of anonymity and the lack of hierarchy in a world where every soul is conversely in the same boat by being tipped overboard. People begin to talk in the past tense. One man explains that he used to work in advertising: “We are used to these terms, to the young using the language of the retired.”
Musicality to the words
This is a debut novel, but Hunter is also a poet, evident in the book’s form, which is written in snatches of episodic paragraphs or single lines. This might be too sparse for some, but there is musicality to the words. Once, while trying to conceive Z, the narrator talks of a faint, positive pregnancy test, and then “days later, the blood, like a sickness, a burial”.
Formally, and by placing motherhood at the centre of the narrative, there is an echo of Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, minus the humour. For a book about the environment, a city, and the world, it is a highly interior story, in the hands of a narrator of great skill. As an exploration of motherhood, it’s a visceral, poetic confession.
There is an extra resonance in reading The End We Start From in uncertain post-Brexit, Trump times – and who can say whether this is a worse dystopia than either of those? But there is a postdiluvian hope on these pages. There is meaning in community, in simple things, and in words and family. A world can be as small as three people, but it can contain multitudes.
Sinéad Gleeson regularly presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1