In the Critics this week

Pullman on fairy tales, Englund on war and Clee on an ebook Christmas.

In the Critics section of this week's double issue New Statesman, author Philip Pullman takes on our guest-editor Richard Dawkins and muses over why fairy tales are good for children. Pullman addresses Dawkins's worry that reading fairy tales to children "might lead to an anti-scientific cast of mind, in which people were prepared to believe that things could change into other things". Pullman writes: "Stories of every kind, from the most realistic to the most fanciful, have nourished their imagination and helped shape their moral understanding... Children whose parents take the trouble to sit and read with them will grow up to be more fluent and confident not only with language but with pretty well any kind of intellectual activity, including science. And children who are deprived of... the world of stories are not likely to flourish at all."

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Peter Englund about his new book, The Beauty and the Sorrow, which is about the First World War. According to Englund, "The form and the language used will remind readers more of those used by a novelist rather than the kind used by a historian writing a textbook." He says that his book is about more than just the Western Front; for example, "the impact of the war in Africa showed for the first time the cracks in the monolith of colonialism."

Former editor of the Bookseller Nicholas Clee laments that "one thing is for sure: it will not be a print-book Christmas" due to the dominance of ebooks. Clee poses the question: "Should we, as readers, be delighted that books, already widely discounted, are getting cheaper still as the digital revolution spreads?" He observes that "in place of the social experience of browsing in bookshops, we will have the social media experience of sharing our tastes through Facebook and Twitter."

Also in Critics: Kate Atkinson offers an exclusive short story, Darktime and Richard J Evans praises Peter Longerich's scholarly biography of Heinrich Himmler. Ryan Gibley is left looking for answers after watching Carol Morley's film Dreams of a Life and Rachel Cooke rounds up Christmas TV. Plus: Andrew Billen on The Ladykillers, Will Self's Real Meals, Antonia Quirke on the best Christmas radio and a poem by the late Christopher Logue.

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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