London is under water and A, with a new baby, is all at sea, in The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. This is the classic end-of-world story told new. Hunter, in this her first novel, seems to be challenging the linear narrative. The main disaster of the novel is only described through fragments caught from the television: ‘Endgame, civilization, catastrophe, humanitarian.’ Similarly, events typically climatic, such as deaths, are treated peripherally, seen through a character’s search for the right descriptive word – ‘pandemonium’. In the event of death, tea is made, ‘like you’re supposed to.’ The narrator seems to be just as adrift in the world as her son, relying on past stories in order to play her part, stories which (whether we believe them or not) we take up, and continue from.
The events of motherhood and disaster help to explore the incredible and overwhelming nature of life, what we imbue it with, and the limitations on what we can absorb from it. The characters seek refuge in a house in the mountains, ignoring and hiding from the news, preferring to watch reality TV singing contests with their safe predictable storylines. In Hunter’s tale the definitive narrative is only present in religious and mythical extracts about world beginnings and endings, ‘Man was formed from dust’, which are interspersed throughout the text. The definiteness of these juxtapose with the narrator’s impressionistic musings untethered to time. Her thoughts seem detached as when we distract ourselves with game shows ignoring reality, afraid of it. Only birth and death seem to give us a sense of the real, of ‘is-ness’ or the world ‘acutely itself.’
The End We Start From contains very short paragraphs, often of just two or three lines, which are then further separated by section breaks. Each section contains a feeling, thought or sense. The sensation created is almost of one slipping in and out of consciousness. We understand that this is one person’s experience. The characters are all given an initial rather than a full name. Perhaps, it is the wish to negate the idea that this story is absolute. As in an allegory the characters are no one and everyone. With so many competing connected stories in the world, how can anything have a beginning or an end.
Unsurprisingly, Hunter also writes poetry. This book can be read in much the same way, pausing to reflect often. It is also ideal for new mothers, or anyone exhausted and time-poor – you can commit to just a few lines and continue later without losing the thread of the story. It is completely absorbing, slightly claustrophobic, and with little action – much as I imagine motherhood to be. Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company (SunnyMarch) and Hera Pictures have apparently bought the rights. Let’s hope they don’t reduce it to the ‘badly plotted movie’ the narrator feels her life has become. In order to stay true to this novel, any adaptation would need to translate to screen the struggle to define what is.