Book Review

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

For fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry comes a powerful novel about the lengths we will go to keep our family safe. This is a story about good and evil and how life is lived somewhere in between.

Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.

Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California. 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.

Murder, revenge, retribution.

How far can we run from the past, when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?

To say that I’m late to the party with We Begin at the End doesn’t even begin to cover it.  This novel appeared on so many favourite books of 2020 lists and, having finally read it, it’s not difficult to see why.  It’s a wonderful mystery, but it’s also a novel that pulls you into the lives of its characters.  And if you don’t want to take my word for it, We Begin at the End recently won the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award, up against some stiff competition.

Chris Whitaker writes fantastic characters, and I think that there’s always one that stays with you long after you turn the final page.  In We Begin at the End, that character is “the outlaw” Duchess Day Radley.  Duchess is barely thirteen years old but shoulders a lot of responsibility, taking on far more than any child should have to.  It’s Duchess who looks after her younger brother, Robin, ensuring that he’s clean, fed, and that he gets to school on time, even if it means she has to go without in some way to look after him.  She also looks after her mother in situations that no child should have to deal with.  Duchess comes across as being so much older than her years due to her circumstances. It’s sad, even though I couldn’t help but admire her in many ways.  She is a tenacious, fierce individual – as any outlaw needs to be – and I love her no nonsense approach to bullies, whatever their age.  I don’t think it’s quite true to say that she isn’t afraid, but she understands the importance of standing up to those who seek to intimidate. 

Duchess’s story – and while it is about the town, and Vincent King, and many other things We Begin at the End is very much Duchess’s story – is heart-breaking.  It’s clear from the beginning that her home situation is less than ideal, and while there are moments of joy and happiness, these are far outweighed by the bad times.   Things start out badly, and will get worse for Duchess before the end of the novel. And some of that is down to her own actions, and yet you can hardly blame her for trying to look after her own. Throughout, I couldn’t help but wonder if Duchess and Robin would ever find the happiness that they deserve.  I won’t spoil it for you, but be prepared to be put through the wringer with this one.

Whitaker does small town America brilliantly, and this novel is no exception.  Set in Cape Haven, California, we find a community full of lies, secrets, and grudges. Cape Haven is populated by some brilliant characters – some you’ll love, some you’ll love to hate, but all will have an impact. The events of the novel will shake this small community to its core, and it falls to Chief Walker (known as Walk to all) to work out what’s going on, even as the state police believe that the case is done and dusted. Walk is an interesting character. He has his own cross to bear, but comes across as a good man trying to do his best in an increasingly poor situation. He is one of the few who understands what Duchess’s home life is really like, intervening when he can and keeping an eye on the family, and he endears himself to the reader in this way.

We Begin at the End is a fantastic tale – a slow-burning mystery with unexpected twists that looks at themes of redemption, regrets, and the impact of the mistakes we make.  Highly recommended.


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