Monday, 21 May 2018
Review: Megan Hunter, The End We Start From
The publicity departments of corporate publishing like to decorate book covers with the Ooohs! and Aahs! of the great and the good, sometimes without much thought about what they say or imply. I drew attention to the dangers in my review of Alex Preston’s In Love and War (reviewed 8 January 2017). Megan Hunter’s book is covered with nine puffs on the outside and twenty four on the inside; among those on the outside, there is this from Hannah Kent (of Burial Rites – reviewed here very favourably on 7 June 2014):
Extraordinary …. I read it in one sitting.
Well, yes, how can one not? This first novel may have been fattened to 128 pages of text and 16 of end materials pages on heavy duty paper, but it is comfortably under 20 000 words long (on page 102, for example, there are just 80 words but I am reckoning an average of 150). The average reader will get through in under two hours, between dinner and bedtime. It is only remarkable to read something at one sitting when it keeps you up past bedtime and even into the small hours. Of course, there are novels which are impossible to read at one sitting, like the one I reviewed yesterday: Jane Eyre is well over 200 000 words long and that is twenty hours plus of reading time.
Nowadays, what with electric light and social media, few people are willing to devote ten or a dozen evenings after work or after the children have gone to bed to read just one novel, but with a book which takes only one evening, I reckon you are in with a better chance. The secret of success is to print the long short story or the novella on thick paper, to give the illusion of substance.
The End We Start From has a stripped-down plot: Woman has Baby (as Private Eye reports when royal babies are born) and at the same time The Great Flood submerges London, forcing mother and baby and car-driving partner to flee north to Scotland. Partner goes missing on the way as civil order breaks down and people start to fight each other lethally for food and accommodation. The Flood subsides, mother and baby return, find partner, and story closes as baby takes his first steps in the brave new post-flood world. I understand it is called cli-fi: climate fiction but that must be a close call in this case because there is as much here about breast feeding and nappies as about floods.
It is clever and readable with nicely weighed sentences. The author understands that you can leave things to the reader’s imagination since we have all read about flood disasters, about refugees, and about the war of all against all which develops as people struggle for survival. Hunter even dispenses with names for her characters – they just get initials: the baby is Z. You can’t get much more stripped down than that.