I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of The Start of Everything from The Book Depository. Free books are pretty fantastic, but excellent free books are even better. That’s exactly what Emily Winslow’s second novel is.
The novel opens with two concurrent mysteries. Mathilde Oliver works for a Cambridge registrars office and attempts to deliver a series of letters that arrive addressed to a student who doesn’t appear to exist. Mathilde is autistic and, defying social conventions, delves into the mysterious Katja’s life to find and give her the increasingly frantic letters from young writer named Stephen. Also in Cambridge, DI Chloe Frohmann and her partner DCI Morris Keene are working to identify the body of a young girl discovered in the river Nene. The body has been in the water a while and, without any identification, is impossible to identify. A chance encounter between Mathilde and the police suggest that the two mysteries are linked, but it isn’t until Frohmann and Keene visit Deeping House that the true nature of their investigation is revealed. Over the course of one winter, the inhabitants of Deeping House hook up and break up, and start in motion a series of events that will have far-reaching consequences.
Winslow is a wonderfully ambitious storyteller. Defying the standard narrative structure of crime thrillers, The Start of Everything is told from the perspective of five different narrators. This particular style always takes a little getting used to, but Winslow writes cohesively and utilises the effects of multiple narrators flawlessly. Certain events are recounted from more than one perspective, an intelligent technique that allows the reader to have a head start over the police regarding certain details of the investigation. The characters are more interwoven than they first appear, and these subtle but important connections are revealed slowly over the course of the book. Winslow plays her cards close to her chest, and the book is better for it.
This book is more than your average crime fiction mystery. The alternating viewpoints allow readers to form a deeper understanding of the main protagonists and their motivations. The cast, as a whole, is complex and flawed, with each character having a demon to battle or a secret to hide. I suppose this is a standard construction in contemporary crime fiction (everyone loves a flawed hero) but rather than being martyrs about their dark sides, Winslow’s characters embrace their imperfections and do the best they can to keep it all together. Winslow’s novel is also far more literary than its other crime fiction counterparts. Alongside the mystery and action, little literary gems like the following can be found:
The hospital had sent me a small padded envelope they called Dad’s ‘effects.’ It had surprised me that you could fit the effect of a person into an envelope. But I knew what they meant, really. It contained his things.
I love the idea of ‘the effect of a person’, and I loved this book for being so beautifully intelligent and really forcing me to think.
Overall, The Start of Everything is a smart and creepy literary thriller that focuses more on the people involved with the crime than the crime itself. Fans of standard trade crime authors won’t necessarily enjoy the literary flourishes of Winslow’s writing, but fans of Kate Atkinson, Donna Tartt, and Alexander McCall Smith will identify with the character-centric narrative and thoroughly enjoy it. I finished it in two sittings; to say that I couldn’t put it down would be an exaggeration, but only a slight one.