Reckless by William Nicholson: dropping bombshells you know are coming

Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer.

Reckless
William Nicholson
Quercus, 512pp, £18.99

William Nicholson’s writing credits include the screenplays for Gladiator and Shadowlands, award-winning children’s fiction and a series of interlinked novels, of which his latest, Reckless, is a part.

Reckless is a story about faith and love and the madness of nuclear war. It covers the two decades from the end of the Second World War to the culmination of the Cuban nuclear missile crisis in 1962 and draws the reader into the personal and political lives of both real and fictionalised characters who are affected by Kennedy and Khrushchev locking horns.

The real-life characters include JFK and Khrushchev, Stephen Ward (with the Profumo affair starlets Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler), Harold Macmillan, Lady Astor and most memorably Lord Mountbatten. At the heart of the novel is Mountbatten’s (fictional) adviser Rupert Blundell, the man who tells Mountbatten “things I don’t want to hear … and that’s just what I want to hear”.

Blundell is searching for an end to his loneliness. He feels that his chance for love passed him by in 1945 when, in Sri Lanka with Mountbatten, he dares to suggest to his colleague Joyce that he wants more than friendship. Back in London in the early 1960s, Rupert crosses paths with Mary, another lonely figure who, on a whim, he decides to help find what she is looking for.

With the Cuban crisis looming, we also meet Pamela, a bored, beautiful girl who tries to find love in Ward’s set, a group of impossibly self-obsessed friends who weekend at the Astors’ Cliveden estate, where anything goes.

Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer. Nicholson also has a talent for capturing the minutiae of life. When Pamela’s marriage-obsessed friend Susie hears that nuclear war is imminent, she asks: “And you think this might happen before my wedding?”

Reckless weaves together complex issues and manages to maintain suspense and intrigue throughout. It leaves you with the feeling that whenever madness is afoot, there are decent people behind the scenes, like Rupert, who are more significant than they think.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear