Either the Beginning or the End of the World is aptly titled because it really takes a while to distinguish which of these you are witnessing in the life of the protagonist. I didn’t warm up to it for some time, but once I did, I thought it was a really thought provoking read that took me places I couldn’t have imagined. It hasn’t gotten a huge readership, but I think it should.
“I shouldn’t see him,” I tell Rosa. She watches me, excited. She’s the party girl. She calls me driven.
“I have to see him,” I say.
“Are you looking for advice?” she asks.
For sixteen years, it’s been just Sofie and her rugged fisherman father. Sofie keeps the books for her dad’s business, works in their coastal New Hampshire town, runs cross-country, and daydreams with her friend Rosa.
Then she meets Luke, and the pull is as strong as the currents of the rushing Piscataqua River. But Luke―an Army medic back from Afghanistan―is haunted by the ghosts of war. Knowing this, Sofie’s dad orders her to stay away; it may be the first time she has ever disobeyed him.
When her father decides to take his boat south to find a better winter catch, he asks Sofie’s estranged mother and grandmother to stay with her. Sofie is furious, bitter at her mother’s absence and unreliability. Now she’s forced to face her Cambodian roots through her grandmother’s stories of the war-torn countryside, the ruthless Khmer Rouge, and the hardships of immigrant life―as well as heartbreaking acts of human devotion.
As Luke and Sofie navigate a forbidden landscape, they discover they both have their secrets, their scars, their ghosts, their wars. Together, they are dangerous. Together, they need to choose if they’re at the beginning or the end.
This stunning novel is a raw exploration of longing, trauma, and love.
This started out feeling like the saddest and most depressing book I’ve ever read, and it took a long time for that feeling to go away. I think that was a reflection of the characters because they are isolated and missing essential pieces of themselves. The spare and haunting prose style added to that oppressive sadness. This wasn’t my favorite narrative style – it is more a series of moments and conversations over the course of a formative winter in Sofie’s life instead of a more traditional plot line. However, I have to say that once I got a few chapters in, it became compelling, and when Sofie’s mother and grandmother became a more integral part of the story, I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was haunted at first, but when the stories from Sophie’s grandmother’s life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia started winding around Luke’s experiences in Afghanistan, I learned what haunted meant. All of the characters, no matter how small their part, felt distinct and really visible in my mind’s eye. I liked them all, and the resolution really played fairly with all of them in a way I couldn’t have possibly anticipated. I won’t go so far as to say it was heartwarming by the end, but it certainly felt right.
In the end, I really liked this book – it felt like I was looking in a series of windows that resulted in one amazing picture of how important family and love is to everyone, even those who think they don’t need it. If you are considering reading this, I say go for it. I also say that you need to stick it out because you have to get to the end to really see the significance of it all. Language and situations are appropriate for high school readers, but adults will appreciate it just as much.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.