We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker

Chris Whitaker’s novel We Begin at the End was all over my Twitter feed and the praise was copious, so I did what any booklover does, I ordered the book. Regular readers will know that having possession of a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to land on my bedside table (which is where my currently-reading books live), but this one called to me. I needed to know what all the fuss was about. I needed to know if it was deserving of the fuss.

Hell, yeah.

Whitaker’s mystery/coming-of-age/noir novel concerns the fates of a whole cast of characters. It starts in the past as the town of Cape Haven, California, including Walk and his best friend Vincent King, are out looking for the body of Sissy Radley, younger sister of Vincent’s girlfriend, Star. Flash forward thirty years: Vincent’s been languishing in prison, Walk is now the town sheriff, and Star’s the messed-up mom of 13-year-old Duchess and 5-year-old, Robin.

Walk has made it his mission to look out for Star and her kids. Star’s a bit of a hot mess. She and her kids live in poverty, and Star spends a lot of time self-medicating with booze and pills. Duchess thinks part of her mom’s difficulty stems from what happened to Sissy all those years ago. “Duchess had got the bones of the story over the years, from Star when she slurred it, from the archive at the library in Salinas.”

When Vincent is released from jail he returns to Cape Haven and sets about restoring his family home, which just happens to be on a prime piece of waterfront. Dickie Darke, the local badass and sometime consort of Star, wants Vincent’s land badly, but Vincent isn’t interested in selling. He mostly just wants to be left alone. Vincent’s freedom is short lived though, and he’s soon back in jail for another crime, and this crime is the mystery which threads itself through the novel. Vincent insists on Martha May, another childhood friend and Walk’s old girlfriend, to represent him even though she’s not a criminal lawyer. That brings Martha back into Walk’s orbit after a long absence.

There are lots of surprises in Whitaker’s novel and some of the best ones are saved for the end, but it isn’t really the mystery that kept me turning the pages, it’s the characters.

Walk is loyal and dogged, and he’s spent his whole life in Cape Haven, where he knows everyone, Cape Haven is a quiet coastal town and he’s never even really had occasion to draw his gun. Vincent is taciturn and patient. Star is a hot mess. Even Dickie Dark is complicated. Minor characters, Milton, the town butcher and head of the local neighbourhood watch, Cuddy, the guard at the prison where Vincent has spent the last thirty years of his life, and Hal, the children’s grandfather, are compelling. But it’s Duchess who draws you in

If Duchess is perhaps a tad too precocious, she’s to be forgiven. She’s been dealt a rotten hand. And when circumstances land her and Robin in Montana with the grandfather they don’t know, her life is upended again. It takes every ounce of energy she has to rein herself in, and she’s really only willing to do that for her little brother. She doesn’t let people get close; it takes patience and perseverance to get past her defenses. Luckily, there are people in her life willing to keep trying. I loved her. She reminded me of Turtle, the protagonist of Gabriel Tallent’s stellar debut My Absolute Darling. This is a compliment, trust me.

There are a lot of moving pieces in Whitaker’s novel, and a lot of characters, too. There has been some criticism of his prose and the short hand he uses. I don’t read westerns and while much of this novel feels like a western, I chalked Duchess’s odd vernacular up to bravado: “I am the outlaw Duchess Day Radley” she tells more than one adversary. Perhaps odd coming from a kid from California, but not necessarily from a smart kid looking to build a protective shield around herself and those she loves. As for the novel’s prose, once I settled into Whitaker’s world, the writing just seemed spare. I think it suited the story, laid it bare.

This is a great book on so many levels. Read it for the mystery. Read it for the characters. Read it for the gut punch at the end. But read it!