The End is Where We Begin by Maria Goodin – when memories, the present and the future collide

The End is Where We Begin by Maria Goodin

Jay Lewis is struggling. In this intense novel of twists and turns memories come to the fore, causing some pain and confusion. On the positive side he is the single father of a reasonably well balanced teenager with a group of friends and some family who have formed a mutual support network. He works hard and achieves a reasonable standard of living. He struggles with relationships, but bringing up a son has given him a focus. He has hit a rough patch just now, when Josh is beginning to test boundaries. The memories of a life changing evening are coming back, and there is someone else from whom he wants forgiveness, and there are times when it is all a bit overwhelming. This complex book switches between memories and the present, as themes and images leap forward, as Jay struggles to come to terms with new realisations. Fortunately the author is able to balance them, give clues and elements that soon establish what is happening, where and when, and it becomes a compelling read. The dialogue between the characters is so well written, as teenage boys tease and gently torment each other as a group, as older people try to express their deepest feelings and their current issues, as a son and his father try to reshape their relationship. Jay knows he wants forgiveness for the evening that shaped his life, but also wants to find a woman whose love he has never forgotten. This is a perceptive and remarkable novel for its construction and audacity, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this contemporary novel of life and love.

The book begins with Jay hosting his son Josh’s fifteenth birthday party. As with any parent, despite the fact that Jay is a remarkably young father, he is a bit confused by the assembled group’s obsessions and references, but he is also overwhelmed by memories of his friendship group at the same age, when mentions of a knife had other connotations. His son and their group depart, but he is trying to cope with the vivid memories of an evening when “I remember it was my fault we were running late”, a time when his group were confronted with a terrible sight. His focus then sweeps to a memory of a first kiss, sweets and Libby, a girl who lived on a boat. The focus then goes to the birth of a baby and all the conflicting emotions that caused, of the news that he has a son. Throughout the book the focus switches, giving information to the reader so that they want to find out more. The presence of brilliant and troubled Michael, an older sister who seemed to want different things, a mother who tried to explain.

This writer shows a real skill at making the complex understandable, pressing the reader onwards to link up the disparate elements of the book. I think that Goodin manages it by focusing on Jay, keeping him as a constant throughout what could be a complicated narrative. I really enjoyed piecing together what happened, what he and others felt, how the various situations would resolve themselves. Using such techniques such as attempts at messages, honest and sometimes stumbling conversations, a limited but well described range of settings, this is a book of what feels like life. A truly involving read, this book is a reflection of one person’s struggles to come to terms with the past, cope with the present, and look, however hesitantly, to the future.   

Nutmeg by Maria Goodin – a work of imagination

Image result for Nutmeg Goodin

This is a delightful book on the surface. A book of stories and images of food coming to life around a series of houses, throughout the life of a young woman. It is also, however, a book about how people learn to protect themselves, through imagination and exercising their talent. On the one side is hard, scientific realism, investigation and refusal to accept anything but the truth, no matter how painful. On the other hand, the loving gentle deception which shields against horrific truth. This is a funny book full of great invention. This is a story of women who have to find a way to live with their past, to protect those they love.

Meg is a young woman who is fundamentally confused. She lives a strictly scientific life, in an arid relationship with Mark, who is always pushing for the truth. She has worked hard to exclude all hint of fantasy from her life in reaction to her growing up with her mother, who seemingly cannot function without a ridiculous explanation for every aspect of life. From the moment of Meg’s birth, which apparently happened before she was thoroughly cooked and she needed to finish growing on a sunny windowsill, to the identity of her father who was a French pastry chef who died in a pastry making accident, Meg has been told stories by her loving mother, who compulsively cooks. Innocent meals are dominated by dancing foodstuffs, escaping toads and window boxes which produce more than allotments. Meg’s mother talks in fairy tales, alluding to Meg’s extreme sweetness as a child, the smell of London being the food shops and stalls many miles away, everyday life being transformed into delightful adventures. Meg had rejected these tales in her own mind as soon as she was subjected to the sceptic children around her at school, as she realises that her mother’s tales are untrue and unconvincing.  She ruthlessly excludes any hint of imagination in her studies or life, and succeeds until her mother becomes seriously ill. As Meg moves back to her mother’s house, she tries to balance her own passion for the truth with her mother’s continuing manic cooking and recitation of fantastic tales. She tries to satisfy her boyfriend’s urging to find out the truth of her birth and childhood before, as Mark says, it is too late. Coincidence, hints and nervous exploration discovers some answers, but she questions if she really want to know the truth after all. The Gardener, Ewan, also shows there is another way to live, as he seems to suggest that too much reality is not always the answer.

This is a clever book, pitting different explanations of life against one another. Traumatic events can be dealt with in various ways, and here gentle fantasy is the answer. Meg’s situation is far from unique, but the way of dealing with it is unusual. The reader experiences her frustrations with her mother, life and real life, and the book itself has much to say about relationships in a complicated world, and there is much to reassure in this book. Sometimes the whimsy gets a little cloying, but it accurately reflects the nature of the world view Meg is battling with on a daily basis. A complete antidote to hard edged murder and mystery novels, this book itself is a romantic confection, with a traumatic edge. I was glad to receive a copy of the book from Legend Press. I found it an unusual read, comforting, funny and unchallenging, but also presenting an alternative way to live.

One of the things I like about writing Northernreader is reviewing a great variety of books; books that appeal to different people at different times. I hope you enjoy it as well! I am recovering from a huge book group meeting yesterday – nineteen people in our little sitting room! (One member is only four moths old, but behaved beautifully) Another good thing is that most had some good things to say about the book – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, – so maybe it was not such a bad choice!