We Begin at the End

Written by Chris Whitaker

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

We Begin at the End
Zaffre Publishing
RRP: £14.99
Released: April 2 2020

In Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast, a boy in a borrowed car is responsible for the death of a little girl. He goes to jail for murder, his sentence later extended when he kills a fellow prisoner, a convicted paedophile. After thirty years he’s released, to return, a guilt-ridden shell, to a hostile community still suffering from the effects of his killing a child albeit by accident.

This is Vincent King, once the closest friend of Walk: Chief Walker, now a compassionate and unorthodox cop in the early stages of Parkinson’s who runs the town’s station. Walk takes care of people; he meets Vincent at the prison gate and brings him home; he looks after Star, the damaged sister of Sissy, the child whom Vincent killed; he is watchful and concerned for vulnerable children.

Star has family; her father disappeared after Sissy’s death and her mother committed suicide but Star stayed in Cape Haven, had two children by unknown men and now, with the reputation of town whore, she sings at a sleazy club, gets drunk and neglects her kids. However, Robyn, an angelic six-year old, is protected by the fierce maternal shield of his big sister, Duchess, a foul-mouthed earth mother at thirteen. It’s Duchess who fights the school bullies, turns lewd comments with barbed insults, who even, in the last resort, counters intimidation with blackmail.

Duchess respects Walk. He fills the family’s fridge, sees Star goes to her counselor, takes her medication, threatens the men who move to exploit her. He fails. And it’s Walk who, when Star dies, drives the children a thousand miles north to leave them, raging and bereft, with their grandfather – the man who had disappeared thirty years ago.

The book divides, part with the children and Hal on a farm in Montana, part back in Cape Haven, where Vincent has been charged with Star’s murder and Walk, convinced of his innocence, is fighting to prove it in the face of his friend’s refusal to confess or to deny the accusation. He will talk only to one of their childhood friends, Martha May, now a family lawyer.

As Walk and Martha search for evidence in Vincent’s favour back in Montana an intriguing situation evolves as Robyn adapts to farm life with all the gusto of a little boy who loves animals while his big sister slowly, infinitesimally, starts to emerge from madness and grief towards empathy, the thaw engendered by her first contact with a horse. Hal teaches her to drive, to shoot, to ride. At school she is befriended by Thomas Noble, a black boy with a withered hand, an intelligent and delightful peer. He partners her in the school dance where she wears a frock chosen by Hal and a corsage donated by Mrs Noble – another caring soul who collects Duchess at the end of the evening and drives her back to the farm and to horror.

Flaws are more conspicuous in a good book and this is very good. Precious to start, as if the author had been advised to rewrite his opening and he has scraped it to the bone. There are echoes of Dylan Thomas but Thomas knew better than to misspell “all right” and to make of lay an intransitive verb – minor flaws but they jar. And after the end, itself so correct, so satisfying, it smacks of arrogance to find four pages of a Questionnaire for a Reading Group, in its deconstructing seeming to tear this fine book apart.

For it is fine: the depiction of children superb; of the adults who seek to protect or exploit them: perceptive, cutting, objective, colourful. Reading this book is like watching a long film, every frame the product of a fusion between receptive brain and honed words. History will decide where it comes in the hierarchy of American novels but for one reader this one ranks below Steinbeck’s but above Hemingway.

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