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In the New Statesman this week: Autumn Fiction Special

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by the biggest names in British literature.

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by two British literary heavyweights, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Our own critical prizefighter Leo Robson argues that scientists and historians have captured the brains of these two writers, now in their mid-60s, bringing them to the point where facts overpower their fiction. You can read Leo’s review online now, as a taster of our Autumn Fiction Special, which also includes:

Lionel Shriver on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances Wilson on the Booker-longlisted How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Eimear McBride on The Wake by Paul Kinsnorth, published by innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Rachel Holmes on The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Olivia Laing on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Neel Mukherjee on The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Ian Sansom on J by Howard Jacobson

And finally, although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS’s critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

This week’s New Statesman, “The New Caliphate” is available in shops NOW. To purchase a copy, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store.

And if that wasn’t enough to chew on, Philip Maughan has written a preview of the next clutch of new big-name novels, due out later this year:

The year’s most beautiful season is also the busiest for those in the book business. Canadian dynamo Margaret Atwood kicks off the second wave of notable titles this autumn with a new collection of dark fables, Stone Mattress, on 28 August (look out for an interview soon in the NS). Competing with her for the prize of hottest story collection of 2014 is Hilary Mantel (the deliciously titled Assassination of Margaret Thatcher lands on 25 September), Kirsty Gunn, whose Infidelities will be published on 6 November along with another Canadian, Eliza Robertson, who publishes her hotly-tipped debut Wallflowers on 16 September.

Virago will release the new novel by Marilynne Robinson on 9 October, the third instalment in the Gilead series, Lila, which tells the story of a rogue child coming to terms with her new life as a minister’s wife. Irish writer Colm Tóibín begins what might turn out to be a Robinson-style character survey in Nora Webster, when Nora, the sister who stayed behind in his 2009 novel Brooklyn, attempts to rebuild herself after a shattering bereavement.

On a break from producing the film script for Tóibín’s Brooklyn (which stars Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and will be released in 2015), Nick Hornby returns on 6 November with Funny Girl, the story of a Blackpool beauty queen, Sophie Straw, beginning to doubt whether she is cut out for the showbiz world. After the unearthly cool of Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, Faber returns with The Book of Strange New Things, also on an extraterrestrial theme. Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian, is a missionary expedition to the planet of Oasis, where he must translate the Gospels into a language comprehendible to the alarmingly enthusiastic natives.

The beginning of November sees the return of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s most endearing alter-ego, surveying the damage done to his New Jersey home by Hurricane Sandy in Let Me Be Frank with You. Finally, on the slippery slope to Christmas, trains and planes worldwide to fill up with copies of Us, the new novel from One Day author David Nicholls, published in hardback on 30 September.

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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