How to begin to review this book? I don’t know how I’m going to do it justice, to be honest. It was my first read of the year, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write this review for almost three weeks. There is so much I want to convey about my feelings, and not the words to do it adequately. Still, I can put it off no longer, so here we go.
This book is ostensibly a thriller, spanning a period of decades, and it works extremely well purely on that level. Thirty years ago a murder shook a small town to its foundations and had lasting consequences for everyone closely connected with the case, and down into the next generation. It has robbed Duchess Radley and her brother of a stable family life, and of police chief, Walk, of his best friend and peace of mind. And now the man convicted of the crime is about to be released from prison and return to Cape Haven. This is the catalyst for massive upheaval in the community and a new spate of disturbances that affect all the main players all over again to devastating effect.
The plot of the thriller is complex and surprising, with twists and turns you will not see coming, but it offers more than a straight forward mystery. We are shown the wider consequences of crime, the cause and effect, the life-altering repercussions it has for so many people, not just the victim and perpetrator. How it changes people, rips apart families, ripples through a community as a whole, and is felt for many, many years after the events took place. It is such a considered approach to telling the story of crime that you have to admire the author’s skill, and it rewards the reader with a more cerebral experience than you might usually expect. It will provoke a lot of ruminating on the nature and consequences of both crime and the way we punish criminals in anyone who chooses to take a considered approach.
But this book is so much more than a simple thriller, and it is in the development and examination of the characters that the true beauty and appeal of this book lies. Chris Whitaker has created real people here who will not only get under your skin, but also into your heart and will haunt your thoughts for days, even weeks, after you have finished the novel.
The story is told by two people. The first is the police chief, Walk. As a boy, he was best friends with the person accused of killing Sissy Radley. Thirty years later, he is the chief of police in Cape Haven, faced with having to integrate a murderer back into the life of a town that doesn’t want him, look out for his great friend, Star Radley, when her sister’s killer is released, all the while not being able to reconcile the idea that his childhood friend is a murderer. This is a man at war with himself, torn between his job and firm sense of justice and responsibility to the town, and ingrained loyalty to his childhood companions. Walk’s struggle permeates every page of the book. We watch as the battling sides of his conscience inform his actions, and the impact that has on other players in the story. We ask ourselves constantly is he is doing the right thing. What would we do in his position? Is life always as black and white as we comfortably view it from a distance? Of course, it isn’t and we live that struggle through Walk’s eyes throughout the book. It is such a clever and impelling mechanism for conveying ideas and issues for the reader to grapple with.
The other narrator is Duchess Radley, niece of the murder victim and a girl whose life has been shaped entirely by events that pre-dated her birth and over which she has no control. The murder of her aunt has made her who she is, pre-ordained her circumstances and opportunities, even though she never knew her, and it is monstrously unfair.
Duchess Radley is the most extraordinary character I have ever come across in a novel. I can’t think of another who has affected me so profoundly as she has. She has completely wormed her way into my psyche to the point where I was feeling every single emotion she was going through. As a consequence, parts of this book almost cracked my heart in two. We get to see what has created this bravado shell she puts up against a world that has been against her since the day she was born, but we also get to see the terrified child underneath, the beautiful love she has for the little brother she protects like a fierce momma bear, and her longing for someone to take her burdens from her shoulders, but her suspicion of a world, and people, who have failed her at every turn before. It is so beautiful and honest but totally soul-destroying at the same time. No child should be in this position, the world asks too much of her, and yet her resilience is amazing. We know there are children in the world suffering in similar ways, and it is shameful. The author has created in Duchess one of the most perfect and memorable and truly successful characters that has every really lived on the page and I know she will stay with me for a long, long time.
This is a book, ultimately, about love and loss and consequence. About family and friendship and the bonds we build with people throughout our lives in different ways, and how strong those bonds can be in the face of adversity. And about sacrifice. About what we are prepared to give up to protect the people we love most in the world and allow them to thrive, no matter what the personal cost to ourselves. It is the most extraordinary feat of novel-writing and I urge everyone to pick up a copy as soon as you can. You won’t find a much more rewarding and moving reading experience anywhere.
Jools M - 21/01/2021
Beautifully written - a recommended read.
Duchess Day Radley is a thirteen year old from a dysfunctional home; her mother Star is a troubled soul and Duchess basically shoulders the care of her younger brother Robin. Duchess has no idea who her or Robin's father is - her mother isn't forthcoming with the information. She does however know that on her mother's side, there was once an outlaw - so Duchess believes herself to be one too. She constantly gets in to fights, is rude and unlikeable and makes poor decisions a lot.
Star Radley's sister was killed when she was little, and Star has never got over it.
Vincent King is about to be released from prison, after serving time for the killing of a little girl. He is the ex-boyfriend of Star and was best friends with Walk for years.
Chief Walker (Walk) is the police chief of Cape Haven and was Vincent's best friend. He has spent his life looking out for Star and her children, and now wants to make sure Vincent can come home and live peacefully having served his time.
We Begin At The End is a story of how split second decisions or actions can have far reaching consequences and send ripples far and wide. It is about how far we would go in order to protect our loved ones, no matter the cost to ourselves. A recommended read.
(As a side note, some of the quotes describe this as a thriller - I wouldn't - it is beautifully written character study, with some threads of crime throughout.)
gills - 12/06/2020
Searing examination of the scars of history in small-town America - intense & heartfelt.
Chris Whitaker’s bruising examination of the scars of history in small-town America and the quest for redemption starts out in Cape Haven, California where the tragic consequences of one night thirty years earlier have continued to reverberate through the generations. Vincent King is the man who set it all in motion when he took the life of seven-year-old Sissy Radley, but having served his time he is returning to his hometown that developers eye with interest. His ex-girlfriend and sister of his victim, Star Radley, still lives in Cape Haven and is a shambolic mess as she drinks her way to oblivion and does a poor job of providing for her two children, thirteen-year-old Duchess and five-year-old Robin. Responsibilities and caring duties for both her brother and mother fall on the shoulders of Duchess, hardened by a lifetime of knocks and getting a raw deal, and she alone knows what Vincent King’s release means to her mother and Cape Haven.
Chief of Police Walker (Walk) was King’s closest friend in childhood and his loyalty and belief in the man’s innate goodness has never wavered and despite his deteriorating ability to do his job as illness ravages him, he watches out for Star and her kids. The towering and impassive figure of developer and club owner, Dickie Darke, circles too closely to Star and her kids for Walk’s liking and Darke’s menacing reputation precedes him. Determined to buy the property that stands in the way of making a million from his plans to develop Cape Haven that belongs to Vincent King, Walk suspects it isn’t only the man’s girly club that is rotten to the core. In trying to protect her troubled mother, Duchess’s actions inadvertently set of a series of ripple effects that see the Radley children sent to Copper Falls, Montana and an estranged grandfather who himself never recovered from the devastating loss of his youngest daughter in a cape Haven thirty years earlier.
Aggressively hostile to the point of savage, foul-mouthed and all sharp edges, Duchess Day Radley is a thirteen year old who has seen too much and knows too much for a child of such tender years. Duchess never gives an inch and her first concern is always for her vulnerable five-year-old brother, Robin. Never dropping her guard, quick to capitalise on weakness and already damaged by the fallout of events before her birth, Duchess is portrayed with such empathy. Difficult to like at the outset, impossible not to adore by the end and an awe-inspiring ‘Outlaw’ fit for the twenty-first century at the gut-wrenching denouement.
Cape Haven is full of flawed characters and in Chief of Police Walk they find a lawman of compassion and integrity. It is only in hindsight that We Begin at the End can be seen as a novel dominated by unspoken and selfless actions and recognised as a beautiful testimony to the scarifies we make and and the eternal quest for redemption that it represents. Whilst the character of Duchess Day Radley may take the plaudits, the empathy, understanding and absence of judgment of the devoted character of Walk deserves an honorary mention.
We Begin at the End poses the question of how we can ever expect to overcome the traumas of the past when they are woven so inextricably with the present and in Whitaker’s intense examination of Cape Haven and the repercussions of one tragic event he has delivered a powerful story of the things we do for those we love. Whilst it took me over a quarter of the book to become hooked and feel like I was making headway with the story, it will go down as one of the most poignant, cathartic and subtle analyses of crime I have read in recent years.
Rachel Hall - 31/03/2020
Chris Whitaker’s latest novel “We Begin at the End” is his third novel, following his successes with “All the Wicked Girls” and “Tall Oaks”. This time his thriller is set in a small town called Cape Haven in California and features a rich, atmospheric narration and a deep, character driven theme.
Blurb - Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer. Now, he's been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven. Not everyone is pleased to see him. Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed. Duchess Radley, Star's thirteen-year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin - and to her deeply troubled mother. But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family
but also the whole town.
Foul mouthed, blunt and not frightened to offend, ‘outlaw’ Duchess Day Radley is arguably hard to like but as a mother myself, I totally endeared to her and truly felt her pain. Being a surrogate mother to her young brother and looking after her often drunk/drugged up mother must have been so hard for her and considering her young age herself did amazing well to make sure her brother was suitably cared for. The character that intrigued ,
me the most was Vincent King and I felt there could have been a bit more focus on him and his direct emotions.
Although this book is exceedingly descriptive which added to the already intense atmospheric location, it was perhaps a little too much for me and I found it dipped in places which caused my interest to wane. The plot is revealed very slowly which may not be to every readers liking and the twist in the tail is guessable if you can work out the logistics of it. A suitable ending created a well thought out denouement and conclusion to this interesting and emotional slow burn thriller, featuring fractured relationships, broken characters, love, loss and redemption.
2.5 stars purely due to the immense slowness of it.
Miriam Smith - 30/03/2020