Zaffre | 2020 (2 April – ebook: 26 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
Thirty years ago, Vincent King, aged just 15 years old, killed Sissy Radley. He has now served his time. His oldest friend Walk, the Chief of Police, collects Vincent from jail and drives him home to Cape Haven, in California. Cape Haven is a neglected, unfortunately placed and unhappy town, never forgetful of the murder, and now it is thrown into turmoil by the return of its killer. Sissy’s sister Star is a traumatised, damaged woman. Her 13-year-old daughter Duchess looks after her and cares for her little brother Robin who is 6 years old. Duchess is an odd child, disliked and even feared. She hides behind a Wild West persona she has created as a shield. She has her eye on Dickie Darke, a man who wants to transform the town, and who Duchess knows is responsible for much of the evil in Cape Haven. Vincent King means little to Duchess, but he means so much to everyone else. The community is upheaved, its fragile heart pierced and darkness descends. Walk must help Duchess and Robin to escape before they are consumed.
I’m going to make a bold claim here. I don’t think there’s an author out there whose books can move me as profoundly as Chris Whitaker’s books can. His novels defy genre and expectations. The author’s insight into character and place is tremendous and can often be devastating. We Begin at the End is his third novel and another stand alone read. It builds on Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls, both outstanding. Again, we’re taken to small town America and once more we’re introduced to characters, especially children, who melt the reader’s heart while also punching us in the gut. You read one of these books and you’ll be reeling from it afterwards.
Ostensibly, We Begin at the End is a crime thriller but it’s much, much more than that. It is a novel about damaged people living in a town, so inappropriately named, that seems to deserve no better. It’s Walk who tries to hold it together but it’s under assault and Walk is not the man he once was. Part of the novel is also set in a rural community in Montana, which is such a contrast to Cape Haven but still presents such challenges. What links the two is Duchess and Duchess dominates the novel. She is so beautifully created, as is her little brother, and the relationship between the two of them is exquisitely drawn. So too is the relationship between Duchess and her grandfather Hal. Such is the impact of some of the characters in this novel that they almost take on allegorical powers.
We Begin at the End is a journey towards a salvation that may not be possible. It’s a journey assaulted by loss, murder, revenge, cruelty, hatred, fear and love. It’s not always dark, there is gentle humour. There are also big stories as we learn about the people of Cape Haven, including Vincent King. That means that the novel is as intriguing and engrossing as it is emotionally involving. The sense of place is fabulous. Its locations feel real and influential.
Chris Whitaker is a fine author, one of the very finest, and he should be on everyone’s reading list. He proves this yet again with We Begin at the End which is a masterpiece. This is how characters should be written. The author is a genius in creating loveable, damaged, vulnerable human beings, both child and adult. This means the reader is extremely emotionally invested in his stories. It does mean that there will probably be tears. This is a painfully sad novel at times but watching how the characters, especially Duchess, deal with this is mesmerising. Please read it. You won’t regret it. With no doubt at all this is a contender for my top book of 2020. And now, more than ever, we need books like this.