One of 2017’s most exciting débuts is set in a near-future England in which a mysterious environmental catastrophe has resulted in rising flood-water that threatens to submerge London. The End We Start From (Picador, May) is narrated by a woman, whose name we never learn, who goes into labour and gives birth to her first child while the outside world dissolves into chaos.
Just three days later, still in the fog of new motherhood with her stitches barely healed, the narrator flees the hospital with her husband R and their newborn son Z in search of safety.
On the one hand The End We Start From is a gripping tale about survival after a national crisis, but what elevates it from your standard dystopian nightmare is début author Megan Hunter’s extraordinary prose. It is spare yet intensely lyrical. Events are described very briefly, often in a single line, sometimes in just a word or two. But such is the precision of Hunter’s writing that the reader can picture the scene vividly. Hunter, who is also a poet, manages to convey as much by what she doesn’t write as what she does. On the page the text is set spaciously, with generous leading.
“I’m not claiming that it is poetry, but perhaps it is some midpoint between [poetry and prose],” Hunter muses, when we meet for tea near King’s Cross station (she has travelled from her home in Cambridge) before settling on: “[It’s] prose that is very influenced by poetry. As I was [writing the novel], I realised I wanted to combine that focus on every word that you have in poetry with, hopefully, an engrossing story.”
On the road
It is a compelling story. R drives his wife and baby northwards “on the roads that are left” to his parents’ house up in the mountains, which they hope will be far enough away from the panic. But shockingly, it is not, and they have to move on again. It seems that everyone in England is now a refugee, moving from one temporary camp to another. Unable to survive by themselves, the family is forced to seek shelter in one of the camps.
Although the novel deals with what may come to be seen as the defining issues of our time - fears about climate change, environmental disaster and how it might feel to be a refugee - at the heart of The End We Start From is the narrator’s relationship with her new baby. We understand what is happening through her eyes and, although the world around her is collapsing owing to the environmental crisis, she is concentrating on her child. “I wanted to stay with her experience and I felt that was one of confusion,” says Hunter. “There’s this sense, almost like a photograph, that the baby is in focus but everything else is blurred.”
So amid the chaos, Z progresses through his milestones as all babies do: “Z has learnt to smile. He has cracked with it. The smiles built up inside him, R and me smiling madly into his face until it couldn’t hold any more. It cracked, and out came his smile, urgent, almost demented.” When R abandons them in the refugee camp - too traumatised to stay, though he promises to return - the narrator observes: “R lasts much longer than I expect. By the time he leaves, Z has learnt to hold things.”
Hunter says that she wanted to write about “the mundanity and the frustration and the limitation” of caring for a baby in those early weeks, but also about the beauty, and she captures those moments beautifully and with humour. “Z is trying to roll over, already. It looks like someone trying to turn over a car with their bare hands. Impossible.” Alone in the camp, the narrator makes friends with other mothers, changes nappies and watches her baby thrive, against all the odds: “At the toddler group there are more toys than Z has ever seen in his life. He seems delighted, gurning over the colours and shapes, hauling everything towards the abyss of his mouth. I am giving him a normal childhood, I think to myself.”
The personal touch
Hunter herself is a mother of two young children, although her eldest is now seven, so she wasn’t drawing on recent experience. “I think there’s one line in the book which comes from something I jotted down when my son was a baby,” she says, laughing. “When I had my children there was all this stuff about what to feed them, what to do with the sling and the buggy, and I felt quite overwhelmed.”
Caught between the opposing philosophies of caring for a newborn - imposing a strict routine à la Gina Ford versus the more hippyish “attachment” parenting - Hunter felt that just “being with your baby, which is quite apart really from all of those debates”, was lost. In the novel the narrator is in such an extreme situation that she cannot worry about parenting philosophies, or whether the baby has all the paraphernalia he is deemed to need in the 21st century. Hunter says: “I wanted to get back to that more elemental, essentialness of motherhood.”
The early mother/baby relationship is not an area that is particularly well explored in fiction, I suggest, and Hunter agrees: “Yes, if you think how many books are written about romantic relationships, or how many books are written about war. Not everybody has children but everybody is a child [at some stage] so when you think about what a universal experience it is, I think there is a lack.”
Hunter chose not to give her narrator, or indeed any of her characters, a name (apart from the baby: Z is for Zeb), and explains: “She’s a very particular woman but there’s also a sense that she could be anybody. I think if she had a name, for example Sarah, and he had been Robert, then that would have taken the reader out of the sense of immersion in their experience.
“I definitely knew [the narrator] wasn’t going to have a name and I possibly just called [her husband] R as shorthand to start with, but then it really seemed to work. There’s something quite intimate about using an initial too.”
At 140 pages, The End We Start From is a slender novel, but more profoundly moving than novels six times as long. It is perfectly balanced between fear and wonder. The world around them may be falling apart in the most extraordinary way, but ordinary life goes on and, as Hunter makes us understand, what a beautiful life it is.
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