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The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

First published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Grove Press on November 7, 2017

The End We Start From imagines that a mother gave birth to a baby, known in the novel as Z, during an apocalyptic event that, at the moment of birth, is characterized by rising flood waters. The brief novel combines mommy lit with post-apocalyptic fiction, two popular genres that, in this case at least, do not merge well. Babies are not interesting characters and the mother who narrates the novel doesn’t have much more personality than Z.

The exact nature of the catastrophe is ill-defined. The flooding might have been brought about by global warming, but it seems quite sudden and there are bullet holes in buildings, which might or might not have something to do with the crisis. Television persists for a time, but the news has suddenly become depressingly relevant to the characters’ lives, so they take a brief pause from watching the talent show channel to get a sense of what’s happening in the world. Floods lead to famine and the loss of internet and cellular service. Why? We’re never told.

The end of life as she knows it has apparently been coming for some time and, while the narrator lived in fear of it, she thought that having a baby would make the fear go away. It might have been more rational to fear bringing a baby into a world that is ending. Or to establish a residence in higher ground.

Eventually the protagonist and Z and Z’s daddy R all travel north from London, where they find refugee camps. R goes off in search of a better place to raise the family, leaving the narrator and their baby to make it on their own. After that, the narrator misses R, although I wondered why since abandoning his family in a crisis seems unhelpful.

The narrator starts to travel with O and O’s baby C. O knows about a boat they can take (presumably to Scotland). How she knows where and when to meet the boat in the absence of cell service is one of many mysteries the novel fails to explain.

Given the apocalyptic setting, the journey from London to Scotland seems remarkably easy, as does the eventual resolution of the crisis. The narrator spends most of her time fretting, but her fretting is more about motherhood than starvation or flooding or gang violence or the other terrors that vaguely lurk in the novel’s background but that never seem to pose an actual threat. Those distant concerns appear to have no impact on our intrepid mommy as she waits for baby’s next bowel movement.

There is something to be said for exploring the mundane (baby’s first tooth, baby's first step) in a chaotic environment, to focus the reader on a new mother’s myopic focus on her baby as a defining characteristic of motherhood. Motherhood has apparently opened the narrator’s heart to love; she loves everyone she does not fear. The novel has some value in the way it delivers messages about motherhood, but the messages would have been more powerful if the external world had been more fully or carefully developed.

The novel also doles out mommy wisdom, like “There is no skill. There is only another person, smaller than you.” Mommy lit is replete with similar mommy wisdom; no fresh insights are to be found here.

The novel is short, the story told in snippets. The minimalist style is probably meant to cut out all that is unimportant in favor of descriptions of how Z feels to the narrator while Z is drinking from the narrator’s nipple, or how Z’s eyes are starting to look like R’s, or the things that Z picks up and drops. I got the sense that some of the gaps in information would have been a good bit more interesting than what the narrator chose to tell us. I also got the sense that the missing information is missing because Megan Hunter couldn’t imagine plausible details with which to plug the gaps, or didn’t want to be bothered. The snippet form of storytelling sometimes works well (I recently read Ultraluminous, where the form is used to great advantage), but The End We Start From puts so little flesh on the skeleton that it feels like an outline for a novel, not a finished product.

The novel’s strength is its prose. In Scotland, where seeds still grow, the narrator remarks, “We have arrived at the non-happening, it seems: the invisible growth of Z’s body, the tiny increments of our meals coming out of the soil.” But in the end, the book seems like a collection of strong sentences that never give birth to a living story.


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