Haunting is not a word I use lightly or in regard to many books I read and review. Lately, though, I have read three books which I would call haunting: The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen, The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick, and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter.
Look for the Book Whisperer’s recent review of The Light of the Fireflies. This review will cover both The Shawl and The End We Start From. All three novels create a sense of wonder and have left me still thinking about each one for different reasons.
Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” and her novella Rosa, about Rosa, her infant daughter Magda, and her niece Stella, are both contained in slim volume titled The Shawl. Readers should start with “The Shawl” in order to learn about all three characters. They are Polish and are on a death march to a concentration camp.
Rosa keeps the infant Magda wrapped in her shawl and hidden away from the world. Stella, Rosa’s niece, is fourteen. The three females have nothing except each other. In the concentration camp, Magda, now walking, wanders away from Rosa and is killed by a soldier. The story is haunting and sad.
“The Shawl” and Rosa, the novella, are both enigmatic. Readers will have difficulty establishing a timeline for the events. Time becomes irrelevant to those in a concentration camp. In Rosa, we find Rosa and Stella both living in the US. Stella is in NYC, but Rosa, after destroying her store in NYC, flees to Miami. Stella supports Rosa grudgingly and frequently demands that Rosa return to NY.
The Shawl, both stories, is about loss, deprivation, anger, war, injustice, and poverty. I did not enjoy reading either story, but they both continue to stay in my mind, causing me to think about Rosa, Magda, and Stella as well as others like them who endured such horror that returning to live a normal life is almost impossible.
Look for the complete short story, “The Shawl,” at this link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1980/05/26/the-shawl.
The Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/cynthia-ozick, provides a biography of Cynthia Ozick. The author of that article calls “The Shawl,” “two thousand words of finely honed impressionism, a rendering in miniature of the Holocaust in all its horror.”
Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From is a new book, published in 2017. Reviewers write “utterly brilliant,” “remarkable,” “beautifully spare and haunting,” “I was moved, terrified, uplifted – sometimes all three at once,” “extraordinary….I read it in one sitting,” and “a stunning tale…striking and frighteningly real.”
I purchased The End We Start From at Waterstones Bookshop in London near the Millennium Gloucester Hotel where I stayed on my first-ever trip to London. I had looked at the book as I entered the store; then a clerk in the store recommended it by saying, “After I read The End We Start From, I cannot get the story out of my mind. I continue to think about it.” That was enough to persuade me to buy the book.
Benedict Cumberbatch has been so taken with The End We Start From that his company SunnyMarch along with hera Pictures has purchased the rights to the book in order to make a feature film. Read about the coming film adaptation at this link: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/benedict-cumberbatch-company-adapt-novel-end-start-movie-083034553.html.
As I wrote earlier, haunting is the word that keeps coming to my mind about Hunter’s debut novel. The End We Start From falls into the Cli-Fi, climate fiction, category. Dan Bloom coined the term, Cli-Fi, to resemble Sci-Fi, in the late 2000s. Bloom maintains a comprehensive Web site on cli-fi: http://cli-fi.net/.
While Bloom gave climate fiction its name in the late 2000s, such fiction has been in existence much longer. Readers will be familiar with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, and Ian McEwan’s Solar. The Chicago Review of Books, https://chireviewofbooks.com/2017/02/08/the-man-who-coined-cli-fi-has-some-reading-suggestions-for-you/, describes other books in the Cli-Fi genre with recommendations from Dan Bloom.
At BookRiot, Emily Martin’s article “What is Cli-Fi? A Beginner’s Guide to Climate Fiction” provides readers with more information and additional titles. Find that article at this link: https://bookriot.com/2018/05/03/climate-fiction/.
Hunter picks up the genre in current times with a young woman ready to give birth to her first child when a devastating flood hits London. Hunter uses only initials to identify the characters. The story begins:
“I am hours from giving birth, from the event I thought would never happen to me, and R [her husband] has gone up a mountain.
When I text him, he sends his friend S to look after me, and starts down the mountain.
“S is scared, and has brought J.
“J is also scared, and has brought beer.”
The story is written with much white space between passages. That white space heightens the anticipation and the uncertainty as the young mother gives birth to a son, Z, a child she thought she would never have.
Then the flood waters take over, leaving the young family without a home and put into the same predicament as thousands of others who have lost homes and businesses to the flood waters. From there, Hunter takes the readers through more and more loss as well as separation of the young couple.
The mother holds on to Z and hopes she will find R again. Meanwhile, Z continues to grow as he would in any other circumstance. Cumberbatch calls The End We Start From “a stunning tale of motherhood.” It is a story of survival and a fight to be reunited as a family.
The story will haunt and puzzle readers. It is not a perfect novel; still, it raises questions and causes the readers to think. Isn’t that enough sometimes?
In reading all three of these books recently, I see the various ways authors tackle hard subjects. They may not always hit the mark perfectly, but they do provide much fodder for thought and introspection. Paul Pen’s The Light of the Fireflies, Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From will certainly give readers pause.