The End We Start From is a ‘cli-fi’ novel, set in Britain as flood waters close over London, and written from the perspective of a woman who has just given birth to her first child.
Most parents will concede that the first year of parenthood is the hardest year of one’s life, its balm being the magic you see in your little creation’s development. As I read this mother’s story – of her and her husband’s escape from London to the ‘safety’ of the countryside, of their struggle for food and shelter, and of her husband’s nervous breakdown throwing her and her newborn even closer to desperation, I thought back to my own early days as a mother and wondered not only how I would have coped on a practical level without a home, a full fridge, and my family securely around me, but of the level of anxiety I would have felt. During that first year I worried about everything: my son’s health (I got my money’s worth out of the NHS that year), my relationship with myself and others, and, primarily, that perennial question: am I a good enough mother? The mother in this story is no different:
At the toddler groups [in the refugee camps] 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.
And this is where this wonderful novel, written sparingly in short sentences and readable in a day, packs its punch: because at some stage reading it, the penny will drop that there are parents out there living a very similar and real trauma, be they refugees fleeing conflict, victims of famine, or prisoners of bog-standard poverty. Every time you see a news report with masses of people huddled in wind-torn tents, it’s more than likely that someone’s just brought a beautiful new life into that chaos, and they are asking themselves how they can be the exemplary parent they want to be. The fact that the characters in this novel are identified only by their initials makes them universal: the best of fiction, making other people’s stark reality real for all of us.
But the new mother-baby hook, while seeming at first to be unnecessary trauma to add to an already traumatic mix, is the magic that makes this book readable and able to carry its message without prompting recourse to strong spirits. All of the milestones in the first year of both being a mother and being a baby are exquisitely observed (including that first time your baby rolls off the bed onto its head – that’s a really special one, trust me) and the book culminates in the most positive way, as baby Z achieves a major milestone just before his first birthday. This message of hope – the promise that new life brings, and the strength of new mothers, however wobbly we may sometimes feel, even with a full fridge – is a tribute to the inescapable wonder of early motherhood, and mothers everywhere. I salute us all.