As much as I love classics, I have always had a soft spot for books that are just a bit odd, or at the very least trying something new. Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From does just that—the characters have no names or physical identifiers; descriptive features of the setting are nowhere to be found; and the book itself is very short. I took it out from Firestone’s e-book library, which tracked my reading time—around 90 minutes, a good portion of which was spent while in line for PSEC’s free acai bowls. The End We Start From benefits from being read all at once, given the way it sucks the reader into its ungrounded, uncertain landscape, but you’ll be released back into your own defamiliarized world after only a few hours. Whether the world being defamiliarized is, in fact, the reader’s own familiar world is debatable, however—because it depends completely on who the reader is.
Some experimental aspects of the novel turned me off at first, but I quickly got used to them. For instance, none of the characters have names. They’re only differentiated by letters of the alphabet, which tiptoes into gimmick territory, and felt more tortured than the lack of named characters in books like Gerald Murnane’s The Plains. But unlike The Plains and similar works, The End We Start From does have a plot, the characters are distinct, and they build discernible relationships with one another. Therefore, differentiating them in some manner is probably necessary in order to make sense of the storyline. And their namelessness feels purposeful: the ground has been pulled out from under the characters, and names might feel like overkill, like putting ornaments on a Christmas tree that has no needles.
So what is this book even about? Imagine London, overcome by climate catastrophe—namely, a flood. But imagine that this London is less of the cliche double-decker red bus and hail-Queen-Elizabeth city people think of, and more of just a place, a home, where people live and grow up and society exists. That’s the setting.
Now imagine a woman. She’s of child-bearing age, maybe on the older side. She has a husband. She had a standard white-collar job, before the flood. And she’s just given birth to a child. Is she tall? Short? White? Black? Frumpy? Statuesque? This kind of information is undisclosed and, in the context of the novel, irrelevant. Her femaleness, and how that impacts her status as a mother and others perception of her, is relevant, but for most of the novel she is so removed from society that the rest of the ordinary markers for what defines a person are not useful. She’s probably “average,” whatever that means. But the readers don’t know and don’t need to know.
Classifying the Cli-Fi and the Classic
Works of cli-fi, or climate fiction, often attempt to show the reader what it would be like if their own familiar society is impacted by climate change, resulting in future or near-future settings, sci-fi twists, and occasionally magical realism. Modern works slotted into the genre of “classics,” in contrast, generally fall into traditional systems of writing more interested in the present or past, avoid notions of science, and limit possibly magical details to those of a religious nature. Despite its numerous experimental tactics, I believe The End We Start From still relies upon some notions of classics’ expected audience.
Octavia Butler’s seminal The Parable of the Sower unfolds in a semi-familiar 2024 southern California. The Lagos of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is packed with contemporaneously specific details, despite the magical realism elements. Even the New York of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is very much New York, just soggier. The End We Start From is no different in this regard, except for its reaching for universality, which none of these other cli-fi novels seem to do, at least not as heavy-handedly.
Given that the characters are nameless and in many ways bodiless already, quotes like the following give me pause:
“The news on the hour, 14th June, one o’clock. Tina Murphy reporting. An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect as the names of children.
Lines like these are rare—in a novel about a flood in London, the city’s name only occurs four times—but they still make me question the authorial intent. If pure universality is the goal, the narrator’s pre- and post-catastrophe relatively privileged life in infrastructured London, the London that is “Ours,” doesn’t fit. On the other hand, how could this narrative be anchored in place, on the British continent, without enjoying the subsequent, expected anchorings of individual’s names, cultures, religions, and so on?
The End We Start From is minimalist, but is it minimalist like a Haruki Murakami story—no purple prose, no explanation for the presence of a supersized superhero frog, and no digressions? Or is it minimalist like a Philip Glass étude—the same directionless chordal pattern repeated so many times you’ve (almost) started to get bored of it, before you realize it’s morphed one note at a time into a completely different key? I would argue The End We Start From is somewhere between these two stylistic approaches, given its Murakami-esque linguistic frugality, but without any of the weird, and its Glassian repetition and subtle shifts, but with clear direction. It’s a story about new motherhood amidst global catastrophe, but there are very few chunky, juicy words, and in fact few words at all. There are few long sentences, few long paragraphs, and it’s also rare that there are more than a few paragraphs together before a section break.
This stylization could be interpreted a few different ways. Perhaps the narrator is only disjointedly experiencing her life. Perhaps the reader is meant to feel a bit shut out. Perhaps the narrative is being scrawled down by the narrator in a rushed, time-constrained, yet thoughtful diary, similarly to Helen Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year.” Perhaps the narrator is being held back by the fear of her reader knowing enough about her to find her, and so that’s why she doesn’t describe her appearance, name the people in her life, or explain precise surroundings. A few details here and there reveal that the story takes place in London and southern England, but at certain moments—such as when the narrator is crossing an unnamed “border,” or spends a significant amount of time on an unspecified “beach”—one could imagine her anywhere in the world. It could be the Mexican-American border and a Gulf coast beach (in the cooler months). It could be the North Korean-South Korean border and a beach on the coast of the Sea of Japan. With so much vagueness, universality is not out of the question.
Circumstantial vagueness does not preclude specificity. The novel is mostly focused on relationships—the narrator and her son, Z; the narrator and her husband, R; the narrator and another mother whom she befriends, O; etc. Relationships feel real because of their specificity—often extraordinary specificity. “I find O reassuring, with her hook nose, her round hips. She has kept those, when everywhere people have started to look like models, all visible angles” (80), the narrator writes. In just two sentences, Hunter not only provides a silhouette of O, but a silhouette of the rest of the people in the refugee camp where the narrator is temporarily sequestered. O becomes specific and real, everyone else is a jumbled “people” whose individual differences the narrator does not care to point out. Most relevant is that they are all relatively undernourished. There are too many people, anyway, for the reader to get a sense of them all in such a short book, so this line, representative of the novel’s tightly relevant, economical writing style, remains focused on revealing the narrator’s perspective on her setting.
The End We Start From also spends a significant amount of time on smells. The reader comes to know so well what baby Z smells like that he is practically in our arms. Z’s growth is exemplified through a few incredibly simple lines. He has “sweet-smelling crap” (29)—that is, he starts out so special even his shit doesn’t stink. Then he “smells like his father” (37), whom the narrator loves despite his flaws. And then “we all started to smell the same” (88)—he’s just like everyone else. Although we don’t actually know what Z smells like, because there are no analogies, similes, or metaphors to help the reader out, we know how he smells relationally. And in a story about relationships, and really in most stories, this is the most important detail.
Defamiliarizing the Non-Default Default
It is hard to read The End We Start From as a London, or even British novel. There are no cultural references. Physical descriptions of the environment are limited to common geographical features. There are no dialects, accents, or notable linguistic variations among characters, most of whom only speak via indirect discourse. The government is a vaguely depicted entity—it exists, but apparently without politics.
Through the literary technique of defamiliarization, which repeatedly throughout this novel, the narrator poignantly refers to the sensation of being “tourists in our own lives” (130) after returning to post-flood London. Although London is a tourist destination, it is also universally understood as a city in which real people live, in contrast to many other tourist destinations in the world. By writing about a London native who feels like a tourist in her own city, Hunter defamiliarizes the setting even for other London natives who might be reading the book.
Notably, many locations that are far less white, “developed,” and Western than London have experienced analogous catastrophes to the one described in the novel. In the same manner that the Ukrainian loss of home, life, and safety has sparked more reaction in Western media and governments than analogous crises in non-Western, non-white regions, The End We Start From takes a London family who are not homeless and not racially designated (therefore likely read by most Western readers as white) and places them in circumstances unrelatable to most 21st century, white Westerners. If the novel took place elsewhere, it would not require this defamiliarization tactic to create distance between its setting and the setting of the white Western reader. In this way, Hunter indicates the white Western (probably not lower-income) reader as her intended audience.
The argument for universality can be found in the vignettes scattered throughout the novel, which—according to interviews with the author—are taken from creation stories around the world. Additionally, the arc of the story follows Z’s first milestones, from his first breath exhaled to his first tooth grown in to his first step taken, which is also a universal progression. Yet the lack of names in the creation story vignettes, such as place or deity names signifying culture and language, gives the vignettes the effect more of adopting or assimilating other cultures into the novel’s default “own,” and less of gesturing toward or referencing these other cultural traditions.
Moreover, the narrator’s experience of raising Z, despite her refugee status and upturned life, feels distinctly Western. She turns to the hospital system when Z is ill, and he receives successful care free of charge. She references the technique of “skin to skin, like the midwives showed me” (43-44) twice. And she experiences momentary terror when she thinks she’s out of “nappies” and “imagine[s] the curdy shit flowing through his clothes” (43)—but R has packed them after all.
So what is the story Hunter is trying to tell? I couldn’t discern an agenda, political, spiritual, or otherwise, and yet the novel felt anything but aimless. Primarily, it read and resonated like poetry. Despite Hunter’s reliance on “default” unspoken understandings—i.e., that all mothers are instructed in, trust in, and practice skin to skin, or that even a world literally drowning is inconceivable without nappies—it was easy to fill in the blanks, and I did not feel as though I was filling them in with cliche. But I am a Western, white reader, so that’s probably to be expected. Even if I were a tourist in London, I doubt the foreignness would feel particularly overwhelming. British culture is ubiquitously accessible to Americans.
If you have time to read this review, you probably have time to read the whole book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys cli-fi, poetry, or stories about relationships, particularly mother-child relationships. Despite the apparently repetitive nature of some of the exposition, which rests for whole pages upon only a few themes, Z’s inevitable growth as a human gave every sentence tension, movement, and beauty. Hunter writes only what she feels she needs to write, and I have immense respect for this, mostly because it “works.” I was invested in this novel, its characters, and its emotional twists and turns. Not that the emotion was particularly twist-y or turn-y—in fact, plot-wise, the book is incredibly linear, both logically and chronologically. It tries to do very little, with very little, but still does very well.
The book did not make me cry, although admittedly I finished it on a packed train. Mostly, it made me think—about why it felt so gripping and yet so groundless, as though it had missed some of its own points.
After running into a colleague, V, from pre-catastrophe life, the narrator comments, “V says things so obvious they almost make no sense” (132). The next paragraph is only one sentence: “Behind us, a policeman adjusts his machine gun.” This quote captures the book for me. It was not revelatory, but I am looking at familiar ideas in a new way, possibly enabling future revelations. And while reading, I never stopped feeling on edge, or just a bit uncomfortable with the state of things, always looking over my shoulder at the metaphorical policeman adjusting his machine gun.