This book is haunting me. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter. Rarely have I read a story so pregnant with meaning.
Within the story – a woman fleeing flood in London (a Climate Change inundation, presumably) -are short quotations from many of the world’s creation and flood stories, and nestled within the woman’s story is the birth, from the waters of her womb, of her child.
Little happens, if you don’t count escaping from flood and returning as a major plot suspense device. Yet the story is in itself mythic, echoing in every image with the fragility and tenacity of life, and the hope that never dies in our human story.
I identified first, strongly, with the story of her giving birth and after-“bursting stitches in the bathroom”-: it is so real that I wanted to go and read chunks of it to my daughter here, as one of the defining and unique experiences of women. Myths are so often told as if by men, even if the characters are women- as is Persephone, for example. And myths are, to most of us, a fairy tale or unreal world, not a participating of our little lives in universal experience and truth. This is real, and also mythical, and also poetic. “Between the waves of disembowelling wrench, the world is shining. I feel like Aldous Huxley on mescaline. I am drenched in is-ness.” The author, Megan Hunter, is a poet as well as a novelist.
As the protagonist is universalized by lacking a name (as is Offred, in the dystopia most familiar to us right now) so is her son. After trying many names the parents choose one beginning with Z. And Z he is from then on. Will this Z be an end or a beginning? How do ends relate to beginnings, and beginnings to ends? The title of the book is from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “The End is Where We Start From.” One thought that surfaces more than once in the book is whether we should make new beginnings in what seems like the end. It is a question that was asked in my generation when nuclear war seemed a real possibility- as it does today with two strident and possibly unbalanced world leaders with nuclear weapons, uttering threats. But as Kivrin notes, in another of my all-time favorite books, every century is a ten. Z is his own forceful self, with, as his nurse says, the sharks’ eyes all babies have. What will the end be? Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega point? Or the extinction of our species? (Or both?) Who is the First and the Last, Alpha and Omega, A and Z?
But the news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore in those early days, but the new reality cannot be ignored. They flee. Refugees. Climate refugees. As so many today, they move onward stubbornly, looking only for survival and safety. Z is the infant Jesus, escaping to Egypt. He is Aylan, four years old and drowned on a foreign beach. He is Everyman. How can we see human stories, and become aware of our deepest and most absolute needs, universal and timeless, and turn our backs on any refugees? This again is a woman’s story, not an adventure story of fights and survival through strength, but of survival through the will and need to carry on. And the child grew and thrived.
The story’s return is, and is not, to the beginning. Is it a beginning? The last line has the power of the last line of a poem, but with the impetus of a whole book.