Huge mo­ments re­vealed in spoon­fuls of spare po­et­i­cism

The End We Start From

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Sinéad Gleeson

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

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