Heart And Soul:
Chris Whitaker’s We Begin At The End has been listed among the best thrillers of 2020, but to label it a thriller is to do it an injustice. It is a moving story of relationships, loyalty and resilience in the face of great odds.
It begins with the death of a child, Sissy Radley, an accident, that nonetheless affects the lives of many characters in the book. Vincent King is a teenager when he is arrested for the murder of Sissy, convicted on the testimony of his best friend Walker—or Walk as he is known– and sent to an adult prison by an inordinately harsh system. He ends up killing a man in self defense and his sentence is extended to 30 years. Vincent is a tragic character, dogged by terrible misfortune.
Walker grows up to become the police chief of the small town of Cape Haven, where he keeps an eye out for Vincent’s former girlfriend, Star, who is also the sister of Sissy. She lives in an alcoholic haze, makes some money as a singer in Donnie Darke’s bar and lives rent free in a house owned by the giant of a man prone to violence. Her 13-year-old daughter, Duchess Day Radley appoints herself an outlaw and fiercely protects her six-year-old brother Robin, an innocent and sweet-natured child.
Star is the kind of small town femme fatale, who is lusted after several men; only Walk is around to support her and be some sort of stable male influence for her kids. Then Duchess does something terrible that destroys their already precarious existence. Star is found shot dead and Vincent King, just released after a long time in prison, takes the rap and goes back behind bars.
Duchess and Robin are sent to live with Star’s father Hal, on a remote farm. While the little boy adjusts to a new life easily and is eager to please, Duchess remains hostile towards Hal, unable to forgive him for abandoning them. In spite of her truculent behavior, she gets the unconditional adoration of schoolmate Thomas Noble and the friendship of an older woman, Dolly, who knows more about her family’s history than Hal is willing to reveal to the kids.
A vengeful Darke hovers over the children’s future, as Walk tries to keep them safe and also push Vincent to fight a case he does not even want to win. Vincent gets the unlikely help of his former jail warden Cuddy, and Martha May, a lawyer and Walk’s childhood sweetheart, who walked away from the town and never looked back.
The story is told from the point of view of Walker and Duchess. He cannot control what happens to the people he loves any more than he can his body, breaking down with a potentially debilitating disease. It takes much suffering and an equal amount of courage for Duchess to comes to grips with her life.
Whitaker writes with a poetic intensity and creates characters who may be tossed around by fate, but have an admirable strength; even Darke and Star turn out to have redeeming qualities. It’s a heart-wrenching book to read, with raw emotion that propels the characters to acts of heroism. The writer deserves all the praise this book is getting. Highly recommended.
We Begin At The End
By Chris Whitaker