Review of “We Begin at the End” by Chris Whitaker

This writer reminded me a lot of John Hart, with his coming-of-age books about families that get broken after a tragic event, and then deal with questions of revenge, justice, and the mournful seeking of redemption.

Set in a small coastal town in California, the story begins as Walk, 15, discovers the body of seven-year-old Sissy Radley. It then moves forward thirty years, when Vincent King is about to be released from prison for Sissy’s death. Walk, now Chief of Cape Haven Police, goes to pick Vincent up from prison. Walk still considers Vincent his best friend, and repeatedly tried to reach out to him when he was in prison. But Vincent is a broken man who doesn’t want help; doesn’t want “saving.” But Walk, he can’t help but try.

Over the years, Walk has looked out for Star Radley, Sissy’s big sister and a friend of Walk’s from the days when they would double date – Walk and Martha May, and Vincent and Star. These days, Star is often out late at bars, drinking and picking up men, and Walk tries to do what he can for her illegitimate children: 13-year-old Duchess and 6-year-old Robin. It falls to Duchess to mother Robin, and she does so devotedly, in spite of her resentment over it.

Duchess is hard, old before her time, and all but consumed by her anger. She copes by imagining herself to be an outlaw, as was apparently one of her distant ancestors, and that fantasy makes her brave as well as aggressive and confrontational. She acts out against anyone trying to help, but the people who know her can’t help but see her pain, and they are patient, absorbing her blows.

Vincent’s return shakes everything up, and a new tragedy rips everyone apart again.

Discussion: The story explores larger themes, such as when revenge is justified and when it is counter-productive; what would lead even the best of us compromise our values; and the fluid ways in which family can be defined. When is the path to forgiveness just too strewn with obstacles? What will it take, after the worst of circumstances, to start down the road to redemption?

Evaluation: This gritty story is not only a murder mystery, but also very much a coming of age book highlighting the bonds of family and friendship. There is a great deal of sadness, injustice, and the tragedy of wretched circumstances, but there is also eventually a measure of redemption, at least for some of the characters. To get there, however, the reader must navigate an impressive labyrinth of plot twists and turns as the story resolves.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt, 2020

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