Megan Hunter’s debut, The End We Start From, begins with a woman in labour growling like an “unpredictable animal” as her waters break, “the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes”. Mother nature acting in solidarity, “unprecedented” floodwaters – the result of an unexplained environmental crisis – submerge the British capital: “London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children.”
It’s the end of life as the unnamed narrator and her partner, R, know it; but it’s also a beginning, of a new existence – one of survival – and life itself for their newborn baby boy, Z, a name that carries with it a sense of the last vestiges of the old world (echoes, perhaps, of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel Z for Zachariah).
Hunter’s strange and haunting novella-cum-prose poem – it’s composed of short, staccato paragraphs of narrative interspersed with extracts from creation myths – charts the first year of Z’s life through his mother’s eyes. This new family flees London for the safety of R’s parents’ rural home, where they’re afforded a brief period of relative quiet before food shortages and violence – “disturbances”: “This is one of the words people use” – see them forced further north, over the border into Scotland. It’s a frightening world of checkpoints and refugee camps – “Shelter 26” becomes their makeshift home – yet it’s also oddly familiar, both to the narrator (“How easily we have got used to it all,” she declares, “as though we knew what was coming all along.”) and to the reader, all the dystopian fiction that’s come before filling in the ellipses in Hunter’s narrative.
This isn’t a novel in which exposition is a problem; it’s more Virginia Woolf does cli-fi, impressions of a scene rather than detailed depiction – “After the flood, the fire. I am losing the story. I am forgetting” – something that’s both a stylistic decision on Hunter’s part, and indicative of her narrator’s survival mechanism in the face of such chaos. “Here are some of R’s words for what happened: tussle, squabble, slaughter” – we don’t need the description; images indelibly imprint themselves in our minds regardless. “I want to write about the checkpoint quickly. Get it over with,” she says later in the story, the troubling grammar and lack of sufficient spaces between the words in the lines that follow hiding a traumatic, best forgotten encounter.
I found myself picturing scenes from Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men while I read, Hunter’s narrative evoking a similar balance between the commonplace and the alien – of everyday life in a world that’s recognisably our own, but as seen through a glass darkly. Good news then that film rights have already been snapped up, by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company SunnyMarch and Hera Pictures. Let’s just hope they do it justice; the dystopian elements are the easy sell, the beating heart of this tender and tremendous story is without doubt Hunter’s portrait of early motherhood, an all-encompassing world of its own.
'The End We Start From' by Megan Hunter is published by Picador, £9.99