At one point in this latest novel by Irish writer Sophie White, we come across what would be a suitable motto for the book, which creates a whole microcosm of fairy-tale horror without a trace of the supernatural: “Apparitions are scary,” its narrator, Aoileann, tells us, “but the real horror is to be found in people.”
Aoileann lives on an island with her mother Aoibh and paternal grandmother (“Móraí”). The island is an exhausted, menacing place:
At the low end of the island is a broad sandy beach. The sand is grey, like iron filings. The wind pushes patterns across the surface and, if you sit for a while, it will stain you grey and your hair and mouth will fill with shards of the beach. I’ve been to beaches on the Mórthír [mainland] and they’re not like our beach. On those beaches the sand is settled, bright and clean. It doesn’t invade. It lies docile, succumbing to the sea. (p. 2)
The book has barely begun, and already White’s vivid sense of place is apparent, that gray sand stinging the back of the reader’s own throat as that wind whips up. This sense carries through to Aoileann’s house, which is perched high on the edge of the island, away from everyone else—fitting for a family regarded with suspicion by the islanders, apparently because they’re not entirely of island stock.
Inside, the house has been set up to meet the needs of Aoibh, who is bedridden for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Aoileann’s family have created their own system of apparatus to help them move and tend to Aoibh without need for outside help. For example, in the bathroom:
The thick beams overhead are how we get her washed and toileted. Hanging from the one above the bath is a pulley with a rope fed through. One end of this rope leads to a cleat that was once a part of a boat but is now fixed to the wall. The other end dangles above the bath; two woven straps attach at the end from which two sizable hooks hang. I get busy unbuckling and rebuckling her belts so that they are unfastened from the chair and looped only around her body. (p. 29)
This whole set-up means that the job of caring for Aiobh is a painstaking one, even affecting Aoileann’s sense of time: she describes it as “thick and slow moving” in the house (p. 37). In practical terms, the caring routine also means that Aoileann can rarely see her mother as a whole person, instead only catching glimpses of whatever body part she’s focused on. Aiobh is thoroughly dehumanized in Aoileann’s eyes: her daughter calls her “the bed-thing,” and refers to her as “she” and “it” interchangably. Aiobh is then the monster in the dark of this tale, at least as far as Aoileann is concerned.
Aoileann herself is a complex character, whose mentality has been shaped by the unique circumstances of her upbringing on the island. In some ways, she’s smarter than those around her: for instance, unlike the islanders, she can swim. They believe that to swim would only aggravate the sea, and Aoileann regards them as superstitious. But in other ways, Aoileann is not so sophisticated—for example, she’s never even heard of spicy food. Aoileann has been sheltered to an extent, but never had the loving touch of a relative.
Perhaps the most apt way to describe her is intuitive. See, for instance, her reaction when she comes across a baby on the beach:
Its eyes haven’t settled on a colour. It is malleable. Its small skull is the size of a man’s fist, yet unimaginably vulnerable. I know from the science book that below the taut skin, it is still knitting its pieces together. This shape-shifting in humans goes on forever. I’ve watched it and monitored it all my life: we grow and we decline, grow and decline. (p. 66)
What we have here is book-learning refracted through a more poetic view of reality. This is what allows the fairy-tale atmosphere to creep into Where I End: Aoileann does not literally believe that the world runs on magical principles; rather, she instinctively reaches for images and metaphors when describing her experiences.
That baby on the beach is Seamus, whose mother, Rachel, has come to the island on an artist’s residency. Aoileann first meets Rachel walking out of the sea, and the sight of her healthy body in contrast to Aiobh’s has a powerful effect on the protagonist: “Encountering her is physically overwhelming. My body is opening to her with an exuberance I don’t recognise. Her body arouses in me the same sense of altered state that the ocean does” (p. 70).
This is not only a physical attraction: Rachel asks Aoileann to hold Seamus while she puts on her dress after swimming, and that casual trust is something Aoileann has never known. The more she sees of Rachel’s world, the more apparent it is what Aoileann has been missing. The contrast is symbolized by their respective homes: Rachel’s is beautiful, inviting, lived in; Aoileann’s is given over to Aiobh’s contraptions, floors marked with the trails where her chair has repeatedly been dragged between rooms.
All is not as rosy at it seems, though. Rachel finds life with Seamus harder than she expected, something Aoileann notices as she continues to observe the artist. It could be said that, when she then begins to interfere secretly with Rachel’s life, Aoileann makes herself into the monster of the piece. After all, Aoileann’s aim is to make Rachel doubt herself and rely more on her. Yet there’s also something else happening here: our protagonist may have been forced into the role of caring for her mother, but in Rachel she sees a caring relationship where she can truly be in control.
Aoileann reaches a conclusion on Seamus:
That’s what a baby is, I’ve come to see now. It is the mother’s whole soul extracted, freed from her body and out of her control. It is her entire existence absorbed by this chunk of meat, a jumble of tiny bones and flickering organs. That’s what a baby is. A little device with which to torment its mother. (p. 186)
There is a certain irony to Aoileann’s expressing this view, because whatever she thinks a baby is—a piece of meat, a device more than a person—she must have been that herself at one point, though it’s doubtful she would acknowledge the thought. This sort of ambivalence helps animate Where I End, as Aoileann becomes both a victim and source of its horror. The intimacy with which White traces that process makes her novel compelling all the way to the final page.