My next book came recommended from the Facebook readers’ group (What Should I Read Next?), but I was careful not to find out too much about it before I read it. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have made too much difference (unless somebody really wanted to ruin it with spoilers), because We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker, is such a complex story that it would be hard to encompass everything contained within its pages in a simple book-talk.
Everyone in this book, and I mean everyone, has some sort of agenda, major or minor—some are obvious, some are hidden, some seem obvious but are quite the opposite—and following them all occasionally proved challenging but also definitely worthwhile. And along with these agendas go many secrets, a lot of misunderstanding, massive amounts of lying, and some catastrophic assumptions.
There are many ways in which one could characterize this book: It is a murder mystery, it is a coming-of-age story, it is the saga of multiple people caught up despite themselves in various forms of tragedy they are mostly unable to avert. Let me see if I can outline the basic story in some sort of coherent form…
There’s a guy called Walk (last name Walker), who grew up in the small coastal California town of Cape Haven of which he is now, at 40-something, chief of police. There’s another guy named Vincent King, who was Walk’s best friend until the age of 15 when he went to prison, partly sent there by Walk’s testimony. Star Radley is a friend of Walk’s and was also Vincent’s girlfriend before he went away, and she has two children, Duchess, 13, and Robin, five, but can’t (or won’t) disclose the names of their fathers. She’s a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser, with the result that Duchess, a necessarily tough girl with a perpetually bad attitude (picture a young Ruth Langmore from Ozark), is raising Robin and keeping an eye on her mother in an atmosphere of poverty and uncertainty. Walk tries to keep tabs on Star and the kids and help them out however he can, but Star seems determined to self-destruct.
The catalyst for the story is that Vincent is finally getting out of prison, after 30 years away, which precipitates all kinds of events, both expected and unexpected. There is a further panoply of significant secondary characters, mostly connected to Star and the kids but peripherally to others, including a couple of weird neighbors, an estranged grandfather living in Montana, a boyfriend with criminal connections, and a lawyer and former girlfriend of Walk’s; and then there are the tertiary characters—friends, social workers, helpful strangers—who enter and leave the story as needed. It’s a complex cast to juggle, but it’s masterfully done, and Whitaker manages to preserve the reader’s assumptions throughout the book, right up to the revelations of the unexpected conclusion. And what he does even better than keeping track of his plot is make you care about the fate of everyone involved.
This is a heartbreaking and frustrating story on so many levels—history repeats itself, love is mostly unavailing, and revenge and retribution are dealt out with a heavy and sometimes arbitrary hand. But it also speaks to the search for absolution and redemption, and the sacrifices people are willing to make for the people who are family, whether blood-related or not.
I won’t say much more than this, because the experience of reading it is so engrossing that I wouldn’t want to take away from that for anyone who chooses to do so. I was trying to think of other books that might be comparable to the complexity and drama of this one, and couldn’t. Stylistically, it’s a story about real people in a particular context; the closest I could come is This Tender Land, by William Kent Kreuger, but I liked this so much better (and I liked that one a lot). It also put me in mind of a little gem of a book called She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper, a much shorter and simpler story but with a protagonist who reminded me a lot of Duchess Day Radley, self-styled outlaw.
Don’t miss this one.