Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

world endsI wonder if there’s something to be said about the fact that “based on a true story” is so big a part of this year’s Carnegie shortlist? Where the World Ends dramatises events of 1727 -28, when a group of boys and men from St. Kilda left the island of Hirta to harvest birds for food on nearby Stac an Armin, and were stranded there for several months as, due to an outbreak of smallpox on Hirta, no one was able to sail out and collect them. When they returned, their community had been almost entirely wiped out by the disease. In her afterword to the book, McCaughrean claims to have altered some of the details–she adds another child to the group of 8 recorded in the historical account, and softens the blow of their return slightly by leaving a few more survivors in the village.

McCaughrean’s version of events is told through the eyes of Quill (or Quilliam), a boy probably in his teens who has been on the journey to the stac before. His reluctance to leave Hirta at the beginning of the book is entirely due to the presence of Murdina, a visitor to the island who tells stories he doesn’t know, and who speaks to him of trees. As the group on the stac first realise that no one is coming for them and then begin to buckle under the strain of the circumstances, Quill takes partial refuge in imagining Murdina on the stac with them, and himself becomes a storyteller, attempting to give shape and meaning to the lives of his struggling companions. Quite a few of the reviews, and even the blurbs, for this book refer to Lord of the Flies, and it’s a rather obvious comparison to make. I think that there’s a difference, though. Readings of Lord of the Flies as being About The Inherent Savagery of Humans are a bit glib and annoying (among other things, to insist on reading general “human nature” from a bunch of posh British schoolboys feels limited to say the least), but the book is fundamentally allegorical. Where the World Ends is not. Though the characters occasionally tip over into moments of irrational rage or cruelty, they usually do so in ways that are consistent with their individual selves. There are two moments when they seem to lose all sense of self, but as horrific as they are they’re also temporary. Having said which, if you’ve read Lord of the Flies (or anything in the larger horror category in which humans succumb to sudden bloodlust) it’s probably hard not to have that narrative hanging over your head and making you wary. Particularly when I discovered that one character was a girl in disguise I was bracing myself for some horrific act of sexual violence. (Her transition within the book from having lived as a boy all her life to a relatively unproblematic girlhood was a bit hard to believe; I had to tell myself that Quill probably wouldn’t have seen the complications that might arise so their omission from the narrative was justified.)

This sense of the characters as individual people is important because one of the things that McCaughrean does very well here is to plausibly and complexly render a set of perspectives that are really far removed from those of her presumed readers. Finding themselves abandoned with seemingly no attempt at rescue, the only explanation that the companions are able to imagine is that the world has ended, their families ascended to heaven, and they, hidden on this small rock in the sea, have been overlooked. This sincere religious belief is twinned with a strong sense of the myths and superstitions of St. Kilda in general and Hirta in particular, and there’s a really strong sense of the interplay between these sets of beliefs and how they exist for each individual person. Quill’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, the closest to what most readers might feel–whether or not he believes that the world has ended, he’s willing to make up stories about it to make the others feel better (which suggests that for him finding a narrative that enables them to survive is more important than the truth of the matter). I was prepared to roll my eyes a bit at Col Cane, one of the monstrous characters one often finds in children’s fiction, who weaponises religion in order to commit acts of shrill cruelty*, but there’s enough variation in the beliefs on display here to make his form of faith only one of many. The other characters include a saintly young boy whose faith is so strong that he sees visions and feels guilt at not being able to walk on water, another small child who believes his mother to be in heaven yet is worried that his absence will mean she’ll lack enough peat to burn through the winter, and Quill’s friend Murdo, whose main regret at the end of the world is that he never got to sleep with a woman–”Ye canna do that while you’re standing about in Heaven singing hymns, and with all sorts looking on … And I d’na think we get to keep our bodies there, either. We are just wee spirity things, a-floatin’” (I don’t feel able to discuss McCaughrean’s rendition of the characters’ accents.)

The book dramatises one important moment in these islands’ history–it makes reference to another as well, though McCaughrean makes no explicit mention of this in her quite detailed Afterword. In 1840 the last Great auk in Britain would be captured on Stac an Armin–its captors beat it to death some days later, believing it to be a witch that was causing a storm. Four years later, the bird was extinct worldwide. A Great auk, or garefowl, plays a major role in this story. Quill is surprised to find it living alone on the island, as he knows that birds of this species generally live in large flocks. As the months go by, Quill feels a growing bond with the bird, which is tangled up in his feelings for Murdina. The others, however, find the garefowl uncanny and a little too human–particularly after it seems to attempt to feed a trapped boy. In a genuinely shocking scene (the book’s Lord of the Flies moment, if it has one) towards the end of the book, Quill’s companions turn on the bird and reenact (pre-enact?) the scene that will take place a little over a century after these events–they believe it to be a “witch” and “storm-bringer,” and they put a sack over it and beat it to death with a rock.

Reviewing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, I don’t think I said that it had disappointed me by being set on a small island and not giving me enough seabirds and saltwater and wind. Where the World Ends made up for this by being tremendously evocative of all of those things (and rock, and horrible rotting-things smells). Best of all, the book ends with a glossary (with illustrations!) of sea birds native to St. Kilda. That alone would have won me over.



The Carnegie announcement is a few hours away, so this is a good time for predictions. I haven’t had time to write about the last book on the list, Will Hill’s After the Fire–that post is forthcoming, but I’d be surprised if the book were to win the medal (it did win the YA book prize a couple of weeks ago, though). On the whole, this has been a relatively good year for the award, or at least for my reading of it; in previous years I’ve disliked the majority of the list and been actively angered by (on average) about a quarter of it. This year, I genuinely liked at least three books on the list (The Hate U Give, Where the World Ends, and Rook); felt well disposed towards some others (Wed Wabbit, about 60% of Release), and only actively disliked one (Saint Death). Despite this, before I read Where the World Ends I thought that The Hate U Give was the best book on the list by a huge margin–I still think it’s the best book on there, but WtWE is polished enough to feel like a serious competitor.

So a decent year for me; but what does this shortlist say about the Carnegie itself? I was glad to see some actual middle-grade books make the list, given the dominance of YA in recent years, but it’s still very unbalanced (and I understand makes organising school shadowing groups quite a complicated procedure). And, given a chance to demonstrate a willingness to engage with criticisms of the award’s lack of racial diversity, the fact that the shortlist excludes any UK-based BAME writers feels like a doubling down–as if change can wait until after the Diversity Review. Whichever book wins (I’ve discussed  my ambivalence on this subject), this year’s medal will feel a bit overshadowed by that context.





*On this shortlist alone we have versions of the character in this book and After the Fire (Release does not, though the version of Christianity espoused by some of its characters is a deeply unpleasant one); of the books on the longlist The Island at the End of Everything also has one.

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