THE END WE START FROM by Megan Hunter THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
There is a variety of approach and style to climate change fiction. Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement complained that the mansion of literary fiction had failed to engage effectively with the issue of climate change – that it had been left to get taken up in the outhouse of genre. The debate about literary fiction and genre is ongoing with a tendency for proponents of the former to try and appropriate any examples of the latter that they feel have the required literary merit. It feels a bit like the mean girls clique trying to invite the talented and cool newcomer to school to join their gang.
I will probably find more to say on the nature of genre, its definitions and hybridity in future posts, but for the moment I have this single thought. It is time for
That is to say climate change, like Thanos in Avenger’s assemble, is too great a foe to be addressed by any one narrow genre. The issue will permeate every aspect of human existence and so it should be tackled in every genre of literature. Climate fiction should be a theme within all literature not a compartment (still less an outhouse!) beyond it. I leave the reader to decide which genre corresponds with which Avenger in my analogy (Fantasy and Thor perhaps, Science Fiction and Iron Man?).
With all that in mind I turn to Megan Hunter’s debut The End We Start From. While it cannot deliver – indeed does not attempt to deliver – the whole future vision laid out in some works of climate fiction, it nonetheless entertains with its poetic prose and prompts reflection with its dystopian events.
The child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was played by Robert Helpmann – a professional ballet dancer who brought his dance skills to the role with a menacing predatory whole body acting. Re-watching the film armed with that knowledge one says “of course he’s a dancer.” In the same way Megan Hunter brings a brevity of breathless wordplay to her novella length piece that makes perfect sense on reading the afterword and discovering the author is a poet whose work has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.
Hunter’s account of a woman coping simultaneously with new motherhood and the breakdown of society in a sudden flood is broken down into brief epigrams that feel like a cross between prose poetry verses and Bridget Jones diary entries albeit in a much more sombre tone. In keeping with the diarist style the characters are abbreviated to mere initials – even the baby, briefly christened Zeb – becomes Z for the rest of the book while the unnamed protagonist’s partner is forever R, his parents G and N.
The protagonist gives birth in a hospital just as the world is going abruptly to hell in a handcart with a sudden and dangerous rise on sea level
“I am thirty-eight weeks pregnant when they tell us we will have to move. That we within the Gulp Zone. I say whoever thought of that name should be boiled in noodles.”
The unfolding disaster is examined only in so far as it impacts on the protagonist’s experience of new motherhood in all its eyewatering intensity.
“R arrives four minutes after the boy is born, frowning and yellow into the midwife’s hands. I am too exhausted to hold him. My eyes ache from three hours of pushing. My under-carriage is a pulp.”
Kicked out of hospital the book charts mother and baby’s progress from refuge to refuge as they first shelter with R’s parents in their country farm in the mountains. The unfolding disaster is alluded to rather than described with N’s obsession with following the news and danger to the business of foraging for supplies evidenced when not all return.
As mother and baby are successively separated from and reunited with R the feel of the piece is more like the Survivors TV series than a specific climate fiction story. This is a beautiful read about a new mother dealing with a disaster that feels almost generic, generating refugees, danger, conflict and an aversion to crowds. However, it brings no great focus to bear on the climate change phenomenon. The flood arrives and eventually recedes with no explanation and, at its height, still leaves beaches where mother and baby can explore and embark on boats to the latest rumour of safety. Lanchester in The Wall, made a point of identifying beaches as a lost element of a past world, all of them drowned by the rising sea.
The text is interspersed with pithy elements in italic which Hunter explains, in her acknowledgements “are inspired and adapted from a myriad of mythological and religious texts from around the world”
The challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of parenthood are among the most fundamental of human drives and ambitions. So it is meet that climate fiction should examine the experience of parenthood in a threatened world. Rym Kechecha in Dark River also focussed on mothers and motherhood in the face of sudden sea level rise, though Kechecha’s protagonists had older children. Claire Vaye Watkins in Gold Fame Citrus also has her protagonists burdened and yet re-purposed through the experience of suddenly acquiring a child. Other climate fiction/apocalyptic books like The Wall and The Last Day have protagonists questioning whether it is responsible to bring children into a changed world, while at the same time having children rebuke their parents’ generation for the ruin they have brought to the world. Even Will Self’s The Book of Dave, is fundamentally driven in both its timelines by notions of fatherhood. However, few can match Hunter’s elegantly terse prose and captivatingly intense focus on her mother and child pairing.