Audiobook review: We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

I’m not sure where Chris Whitaker’s books have been all my life, but if they are all as stellar as We Begin at the End, I have been missing out.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Walk has never left the coastal California town where he grew up. He may have become the chief of police, but he’s still trying to heal the old wound of having given the testimony that sent his best friend, Vincent King, to prison decades before. Now, thirty years later, Vincent is being released.

Duchess is a thirteen-year-old self-proclaimed outlaw. Her mother, Star, grew up with Walk and Vincent. Walk is in overdrive trying to protect them, but Vincent and Star seem bent on sliding deeper into self-destruction. Star always burned bright, but recently that light has dimmed, leaving Duchess to parent not only her mother but her five-year-old brother. At school the other kids make fun of Duchess―her clothes are torn, her hair a mess. But let them throw their sticks, because she’ll throw stones. Rules are for other people. She’s just trying to survive and keep her family together.

A fortysomething-year-old sheriff and a thirteen-year-old girl may not seem to have a lot in common. But they both have come to expect that people will disappoint you, loved ones will leave you, and if you open your heart it will be broken. So when trouble arrives with Vincent King, Walk and Duchess find they will be unable to do anything but usher it in, arms wide closed.

My thoughts

This book is prominently billed as a crime novel, but We Begin at the End is so much more than that. While the whole plot is centered around crime, it’s truly a character-driven, emotionally wrenching, well-written piece of literary fiction.

The characters in this novel are center-stage: Walk is such an affecting and raw force, clearly unable to move past how things were in his small town when everything changed 30 years ago, and always doing the best he can by the people he has devoted his life to. His storyline and the way he cared for (and carried torches for) Vincent, Martha, Star and her children really broke my heart. Duchess is also an incredible character—I am astounded that a man in the UK was able to so well give voice to an underprivileged, vulnerable teenage girl in small town America, but Whitaker most certainly did. Outlaw Duchess is complex, infuriating but sympathetic, and reminds me of more than one child I’ve met in my social services career. In addition to our two mains, this book is populated with many other well-drawn, distinct characters that kept me guessing until the end. Anyone who has grown up in small-town America can probably find some authenticity in these colorful people.

Whitaker’s prose is just beautiful, the language and imagery perfect compliments a completely riveting story. I started this book yesterday and finished early today—I was not able to put it down for anything else once I got going. The mystery aspect is masterfully plotted such that I was honestly surprised more than once at the turns the story took. Be warned that this is not a happy, upbeat novel… it’s hard to read at times and it seemed like every time something positive happened, there was a hardship around the corner, especially for Duchess and her poor brother. The ending of this story was both heartbreaking and uplifting.

The audiobook is great, masterfully narrated by George Newbern. He captures the hopeless, bleak feeling of much of the novel very well, while also infusing the narrative with bits of sunshine and humor.

Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for my audiobook copy in exchange for this honest review. It was a real pleasure to soak in this book.


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