We Begin At The End, a review by Joanna

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We Begin At The End

Chris Whitaker

Zaffre

385 pages

Published March 2021

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I’m very late to the party on this one. Having seen all the prizes, glowing reviews, book of the year mentions and 5 stars from respected book-friends, I was determined to find out what all the fuss was about. Fortunately I was not disappointed – a risk after this much hype. This is a haunting, riveting, devastatingly sad book with unforgettable characters doing what they have to in an unfair world.

Duchess Day Radley is a thirteen year old forced into parenting beloved little brother Robin by the ineptitude of her dissolute mother Star, whose life went off the rails thirty years earlier following the death of her own younger sibling Sissy. Now the man responsible is out of prison and returning to their small Central California hometown. His best friend, Police Chief Walker, wants to help, but is struggling with his own frailty. When violence leads to vengeance, a terrible chain of events is set in motion that will affect them all…

It seems amazing to me that this author is British, when his novel is so quintessentially American. This is both crime fiction and a coming of age story, it’s set in 2005 but could be any time. It’s dark but manages moments of tenderness and flashes of humour. No character is all good or all bad – we sympathise with a killer and are appalled by the actions of a child. Duchess proclaims to anyone who will listen that she’s an Outlaw, but this is not adolescent fantasy – she’s willing to back it up, no matter the consequences – and the consequences are heartbreaking. The writing style took a little getting used to but I stopped noticing the choppiness once I got into the story. The plotting is superb, with twist after twist keeping the reader on their toes, with an ending that is as tragic as it is inevitable, yet leaves us with hope for our characters’ future. I look forward to seeing what Whitaker comes up with next.

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