Book Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
The End We Start From is a quick, easy read that packs a powerful punch. This tale of a mother’s journey as a climate refugee reads almost like climate poetry rather than climate fiction, with short paragraphs and sections that are carefully crafted to convey as much information and underlying meaning as possible in a minimal amount of text.
Some readers may find the writing style a bit strange for that reason. It’s really unlike any other novel I can think of. But that’s part of what I found engaging and endearing about it. It’s as though we’re catching glimpses of the main character’s innermost thoughts and experiences of the world with as little embellishment or distraction as possible. We’re right there with her through the roller coaster of heartwarming and heartbreaking events she endures. Her descriptions have a way of conveying deep emotion and meaning even when the author never says directly what the character is feeling.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Plot), Climate Fiction (Refugees), Literary Fiction
Genres are dynamic frameworks that describe texts with similar or related forms and contents. Readers and authors alike are free to ruminate on the nature of genre and how it relates to any given text. For The End We Start From, three different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Plot), Climate Fiction (Refugees), and Literary Fiction
Climate Fiction (Plot)
I’ve started differentiating between two broad types of climate fiction: “setting cli-fi” and “plot cli-fi.”
In setting cli-fi, the only significant reference to climate change is in the exposition of the setting. The author shows or tells us that the story is taking place in a world that has been deeply impacted by climate change in various ways: sea level rise, ecological disruptions, economic and political disruptions, etc. However, the main plot doesn’t revolve around climate change itself. It revolves around something else going on in the “post-change” world — struggles against dystopian economic and political institutions, struggles with romance, struggles survival in a hostile environment, etc. The characters aren’t grappling with climate change itself, and may not even say anything about it. Catastrophic climate change is just a reality of the world they live in, like a fish in water.
In plot cli-fi, climate change plays a significant role in the main plot of the story. Characters are taking action in direct response to the climate crisis — conducting climate research, engaging in climate activism, dealing personally or professionally with the consequences of climate change, etc. In these stories, climate change isn’t just some aspect of the setting that’s taken for granted. It’s a major part of the story — a force that the main characters are actively engaging with in some significant way.
Both sub-genres of climate fiction have their merits. The more indirect approach of setting cli-fi may appeal to a broader audience because it doesn’t require the reader to have an active interest in climate change. The more direct approach of plot cli-fi may allow the reader to delve more deeply into the details of climate change and its place in our lives and our society without having to wade through a main plot unrelated to the climate. Either way, the reader is called to reflect on climate change in some way as they enjoy reading a compelling story.
The End We Start From is definitely plot cli-fi. The basic premise of the novel is that a new mother is displaced from her home by a climate-related catastrophe. There isn’t too much comment about the climate itself, but all of the action is driven by the fact that she must abandon her home and seek a new place to live in the presence of the ongoing and escalating threat of climate change. In this sense, the novel is a classic example of plot cli-fi.
I really enjoyed the fact that the entire story revolves around the main character’s experiences as a climate refugee. As the broader situation around her worsens, she has to keep moving and making difficult decisions about what’s best for her family. This calls the reader to reflect on the realities faced by refugees in general and climate refugees in particular. Since I’ve also written a novel about a climate refugee (Goodbye Miami), I’m particularly interested in other people’s take on the premise. Unfortunately, as the consequences of climate change continue to worsen, stories of climate change refugees will only become more relevant.
Many novels are written to entertain and engage a mass audience without necessarily aspiring to be works of literature with deeper significance beyond their entertainment value. Arguably, all serious climate fiction is literary fiction to some extent because the author is attempting to use a fictional narrative to call attention to the broader real-life crisis of human-caused climate change. However, many climate fiction stories I’ve read — especially “setting cli-fi” — seem to be primarily about entertainment rather than literary commentary. They reference climate change as a setting or plot device, and therefore hope to inspire reflection on climate change, but don’t use any other particular literary devices or other tools to advance that goal. Literary fiction, on the other hand, has a stronger focus on the literary quality of its narrative and how this narrative relates to other creative works and to the themes that it addresses.
The End We Start From is a strong example of literary climate fiction. The concise, poetic style of the text seems to be a literary device that conveys both the plot and the character’s inner experiences without the distractions of a more wordy narrator. It lends an almost meditative quality to the narrative, even when the action of the story is anything but meditative. It also establishes the character and inner experience of the protagonist while leaving space open for the reader to reflect on how they might feel, and what they might do, in a similar situation.
Strengths of The End We Start From
The greatest strength of The End We Start From is that it’s a shining example of literary climate fiction. It addresses a very pertinent aspect of the climate crisis — the growing reality of climate refugees — and does so in a way that is simultaneously very personal, relevant to a broader audience, and elegant as a work of literary fiction.
Weaknesses of The End We Start From
My one concern about The End We Start From is that the concise, poetic style may be too much for the casual reader who is more familiar with novels that contain more verbose description of characters, setting, and action. However, I don’t see this as a very serious concern. It’s a quick, engaging read. Most readers who initially don’t like the style will probably keep reading and grow to appreciate it. Anyone who’s not willing to give the style a chance is probably better off reading other fiction anyway.
Closing Thoughts on The End We Start From
I recommend this novel to just about any reader. It will be of particular interest to anyone who likes stories featuring climate change themes, refugee themes, strong female protagonists, and mothers. Even if you have no particular interest in any of those themes, though, it’s just a good read in general.