editor's choice



She saw into cubicles, sounds of birth and tears and life. She saw shells of people, so empty she knew they would not recover. Cops led bad men with tattooed arms and bloodied faces. She smelled the drunks, the bleach, the vomit and shit.”


We love Chris Whitaker. We love his writing. So, it’s an utter, utter pleasure to review his latest novel, We Begin at the End. There is some stunning writing around, it’s true, but this is probably one of the best books we’re read in a long time. It’s poignant, elegant, gorgeously penned and heart-rendingly nostalgic. We could just end there. But we won’t.

Set in Cape Haven, the plot centres around the thirty-year-old murder of young Sissy Radley, and the impact on her family, friends and the town generally, especially when Vincent King, her convicted killer, is released from jail. Moving between the past and the present, Whitaker effortlessly evokes the landscape of a small town mired in the past.

As in his previous work, Whitaker’s star quality is his ability to focus on the minutiae of life in small-town America, turning it, through the use of simple, but acutely realised language, into something quite lyrical. He treats his characters in a similar way, people finely etched for us in a mere matter of words: Brandon Rock. Short, broad, tan. A stud in one ear, feathered hair, silk robe. Sometimes he benched with the garage door up and metal blaring out.

Pretty much everyone is damaged, whether it be Walk, the police chief and blood brother of Vincent, or Star, Sissy’s older sister and Vincent’s ex-girlfriend, now a mother herself. The stars of the show for us are the young though – especially thirteen-year-old Duchess, the outlaw, world weary, older than her years, the fierce protector of younger sibling Robin. It’s Duchess who triggers a chain of events, but to say more would be to give away the plot.

This is Whitaker at his best, thus far. And while there have been various comparisons to wonderful James Lee Burke and other writers, for us this book brings to mind the simplicity and incisiveness of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and Bryan Forbes’ film version of Whistle Down the Wind. It’s certainly extremely filmic – and if it hasn’t been optioned already, no doubt it will be soon. When the world achieves its new normality …


We Begin at the End | Chris Whitaker | Zaffre | hardback | £14.99 | 23 March 2020

ebook and audio also available

Please support independent bookshops and libraries

Also of interest: Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world –Tall Oaks


Acknowledgements: Quoted text from We Begin at the End © Chris Whitaker 2020. This review is published as part of the book tour. Many thanks to lovely Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for the invitation to/organising the tour and to Francesca Russell, publicity director at Zaffre. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Please check out the other reviews on this tour.

See also: ‘Doug Johnstone’s A Dark Matter’;Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary: an Old Familiar’; Carver’s Nothing Important Happened Today’; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Rememembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

This review is © 2020 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Any images are used for promotional purposes only. If we have unintentionally breached your copyright, please contact us and we will take the image down immediately. Thank you so much.