‘Narrative cannot order experience, but only register something about the quality of experience.’
A tale of multi-layered, multi-faceted maturation, Jan Fortune’s This Is The End Of The Story (Liquorice Fish Books, 2017) revolves around a central and formative friendship. Set between the seventies and the nineties of the previous century, with chapters separated by months, then years, then decades, the novel’s structure imbues Fortune’s coming-of-age narrative with an intriguing metafictional quality, its chronology as subjective and incomplete as memory itself. By repeated telling (at the level of phrase and the level of represented content), the novel turns out to be a continual, progressing reconnaissance about the same story, but giving a different ending, or ultimate point, each time. The end of the story may change (and develop) each time, but the metafictional outcome is that its end is about the continuousness of endings. As the epigraph has it, there is no final end to order the chaos or anarchy of actual lives; but then, perhaps the end purpose of life is to realise this, allowing for qualitative enrichment by the wayside?
The story centres on the relationship between the protagonist, Cassie, and her childhood friend Miriam. An epileptic of Jewish descent and seemingly a kind of magical visionary, Miriam solidifies their friendship with tales of reincarnation, veiled and disclosed by the aforementioned epilepsy and its recurring episodes. Miriam enchants Cassie with stories of their relationship in their past lives in eleventh century Moorish Toledo, where Cassie is ‘Casilda,’ a princess-cum-saint, and Miriam her suitor, winging between the three central monotheistic faiths coexisting in Spain at the time. In the present, their friendship lasts from youth to university, and then peters off, only to be recouped, briefly and intransitively, over a decade on from the book’s main chronological setting in the late seventies.
This Is The End of the Story is a novel about the investments we make in and by narratives. Indicating this, Cassie’s different, alternating appellations and self-appellations (Cassie, Casilda, Kat, Kitty, Catherine, Cathie, and so on) signify how determined we are or can be by the names (and narrative) we apply to ourselves. That said, if the central character, Cassie, in the end becomes disenchanted, no longer holding her ‘gift of belief,’ and no longer best friends with Miriam, it only enriches the reader’s perspective on her story. Between Part One and Part Two of the novel, Miriam moves from a young woman of fascinating, tremendous mystery to a slightly gauche charlatan. And yet, this is not a hackneyed tale of youthful idealism followed by adult cynicism. Miriam’s magic may die somewhat, but that only empowers Fortune, both shaping and colouring the facts of Cassie’s lived reality in increasingly assured ways.
Among other plot-intents, including later traumas for Cassie after her hasty marriage to the unsuitable ‘Liam’, there are repeated and alternating versions of another central traumatic and violent event, which is disclosed to the reader at different points in the novel in a highly ambiguous, dovetailing manner. The somewhat misty, but still searing wound of this experience for Cassie and Miriam is pivotal to the novel. When Cassie tells (and retells) of Miriam and herself at this more centrally-traumatic and ambivalently-represented event, it serves the plotting both literally and figuratively; the two drift apart from one another, and at the same time seemingly swap roles as they reach adulthood. Miriam is by far the more dominant, dominating personality for the first half of the novel, as the young Cassie hangs on her every word. But as the pair grow older and Miriam’s health steadily declines, Cassie is forced to develop a much stronger sense of self. Of the two of them, Cassie is the character who, in short, individuates, with Miriam left in her wake – the characters’ friendship devolving, tellingly, alongside Cassie’s ascent into adulthood and Miriam’s descent into illness.
Such wounding experiences, then, serve the literal plot, but also symbolically frame This Is The End Of The Story as a novel of maturation, and the tragedy of building new life partly through the death of old relationships. Close to the end of the novel, in 1989, we see in microcosm the lived fates of all that has gone before.
I hadn’t seen Miriam for ten years.
Trust me, Cassie, you’ll get your island.
My island became a recurring dream, an island no one had ever stepped on, but there it was… An island I could not escape so instead I slept through days and nights, oblivion my only comfort.
Then, the novel’s closing moments see Cassie waking from her dream, the disorientation emphasized by a shift to third-person narration, as Fortune reveals a final surprise.
She sits up, puts a hand on her warm belly, the bulge ripening, says to the morning, This isn’t the end of the story.
The dawning redemption at the ‘end’ of the story indicates that the novel itself is no island, on the verge as we are of new life.
This Is The End Of The Story is the first of a nearly-completed trilogy. The second, A Remedy For All Things, is due to be published in September 2018, and the third, For Hope is Always Born seems set to be released in the nearer future beyond. Indeed, one has the sense that this first book has been a fertile tool for its author; the first rung on a ladder she is still climbing. However, perhaps the most lasting moral at the end of this story is that the ladders one climbs on life’s journeys are, and perhaps always were, as much about the climbing-middle as any final summit reached. And the middle never ends; or at least, not as yet.
‘This Is The End Of The Story’ is available to buy from the publisher, RRP £9.99.