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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The End of the Century
at the End of the World


by
C.K.Stead


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The End of the Century at the End of the World



Title: The End of the Century at the End of the World
Author: C.K.Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992
Length: 220 pages
Availability: The End of the Century at the End of the World - US
The End of the Century at the End of the World - UK
The End of the Century at the End of the World - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressively multi-layered and -farious

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 26/9/1992 Andrew Clements
The Guardian . 24/9/1992 Jenny Turner
The Independent . 17/10/1992 Nicolette Jones
London Rev. of Books . 24/9/1992 Frank Kermode
Sunday Times . 18/10/1992 Paul Golding
The Times . 10/12/1992 Jason Cowley


  From the Reviews:
  • "Stead's burrowings into the minds of his characters and the neat switches of perspective, from one narrator to another and from one version of past events to its polar opposite, are the book's strengths; its evocations of the 1960s, studiedly ironic, are the weakness. At times it seems to be conceived as an intricate game (.....) Somehow, though, an awful lot rings true." - Andrew Clements, Financial Times

  • "At bottom, The End of the Century at the End of the World is just one man's homage to the novels of writers like Mary Gordon, Amanda Cross, A S Byatt and so on (.....) The great thing about this sort of book, as C K Stead seems to have noticed, is that it is utterly pastoral, and so utterly gratifying to read. The housewife-scholar's leisurely access to literature, politics, history, memory, as had from her kitchen table-desk in her paid-up house, in her pleasant suburb, is a deceptively ordinary-looking representation of what must be many people's idea of the perfect life. It is proof of Stead's skill and modesty as a writer that it hardly ever strikes you as strange that this normally feminine fantasy is, in this book, being peddled by a man." - Jenny Turner, The Guardian

  • "This interplay of possible realities never degenerates into a mere intellectual exercise. Stead's characters are moving and convincing, the events well-observed and sometimes funny (.....) This dextrous novel someimes wears a serious expression, too. The portrayal of Laura's radical roue friend Maurice is subtle and skilled, making us mourn a man who may be the most destructive in the book. And Laura's narrative is one of the most convincing women's voices written by a man I have read in a while." - Nicolette Jones, The Independent

  • "Any novel so conscious of its own techniques will always be candidly putting a question, or teasing the reader to put it, about the relations of fact to fiction, with special consideration for the degree to which all coherent reports of fact are themselves inevitably in some degree fictive. (...) The End of the Century at the End of the World is an interesting book, not only because of the skill and honesty of its half-open, half-closed structure, but because it is well enough written to remind one that Stead is a poet. (...) If the book can also offer some laconic, possibly apocalyptic opacity, so much the better, even if this makes it that rather old-fashioned thing, a serious Modernist novel." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "This novel could not be less pretentious, but it is richly literary and sophisticated. (...) Beyond his lyricism, and the light, spontaneous, quirky dialogue, The End of the Century at the End of the World is a sensitive portrayal of the middle-aged female psyche, as well as a masterfully concentric work, developing ingeniously the device of a book within a book within a book." - Paul Golding, Sunday Times

  • "Despite its grandiose title, manifold subtexts and multi-voiced narrative, The End of the Century at the End of the World is a surprisingly accessible novel with an attractive central character." - Jason Cowley, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'end of the world' of the title is New Zealand, where C.K.Stead's novel opens in 1990. Already in the second paragraph the narrator positions herself more precisely, in what is just the first of many examples of her trying to find firm footing by expressing (some variation of) who and where she is:

     My name is Laura Vine Barber, 26 Rangview Crescent, Eastern Bays, Auckland.
       This one, in particular, is a sentence she will return to, the novel eventually coming full circle to where she types it out, knowing: "it was, at last, a beginning".
       Laura's account begins in April, the month of both her birthday and that of one-time love interest Dan Cooper, who is now a Cabinet Minister in the Labour government. Now, in 1990, Laura is turning 38 (as Dan turns 47). She is married to lawyer Roger and has three young children; she has also returned to postgraduate studies at university, where her supervisor is a former classmate.
       Birthday-time is also always a time of some tension in the Barber household, as it brings: "Dan Cooper back into my life, just briefly, touch-and-go". He sends a card or calls -- and Roger is obviously not happy about the continuing connection. This year is different, however: Dan actually shows up on her doorstep, bringing back memories of two decades earlier, when he -- then running a coffee bar called the Anarchist -- befriended first her father and then her. The times, and their relationship, are revisited, in accounts presented by Laura in both the first and third person ("Let me tell this, too, as if it happened to someone else", she says, explaining one switch to the third person) as well as a long letter Dan wrote.
       Throughout the novel, Laura struggles some with the telling of her story. She notes that already: "Long ago I tried to write about that time", and had a decent go at it but abandoned it ("I think it was when the baby arrived") and found herself unable to return to it. Now she takes another stab -- still working out how to render it. Wanting to describe the events around her present-day birthday, for example:
     I have a strong impulse (one I may yet give in to) to tell it like a story, beginning, let's say: "On the night of ..."
     For example:
     On the night of Laura Barber's 38th birthday her husband Roger took her out for dinner at the restaurant upstairs in the old Ferry Building.
       Appropriately for someone immersed in literary research, other outside material is also introduced -- another lengthy letter, for example, and transcripts of a TV interview Dan gives.
       Connected to the relationships-stories that are presented is Laura's academic work -- which in turn also connects with Dan. Dan had an aunt Amelia, who wrote under the name 'Hilda Tapler', who got to know a: "woman who went by the name of Katya Lawrence and who claimed to be Katherine Mansfield", long after Mansfield's 1923 death. It's the most intriguing idea in a novel full of second identities (one character's name is an anagram) -- not least Laura's own, as she continues, throughout, to (re-)position herself.
       Laura does also return to her earlier writing about some of these experiences, considering also how she approached it then:
     Fact ? Fiction ? No, I'm not sure where the line between them lies. Only, let's say, that it was fiction in the service of what had once been fact.
       And we are told that:
so much of Hilda's fiction is based on the facts of her life, and illustrates her maxim that she writes, not to invent what didn't happen but to come to terms with what did
       Indeed, Hilda and her writing are central to much of the novel, from Laura's increasing fascination with the Lawrence-Mansfield figure to family-matters affecting Dan. Not least then, there is Dan's attempt to preserve his aunt's cottage -- a place he also then takes Laura to -- which becomes a minor but damaging political scandal.
       The End of the Century at the End of the World is multilayered -- most obviously in the sections shifting between the present day and twenty years earlier, but also in its attempts to capture the story, or stories, of those times, especially Laura's relationship with Dan (whom she first met when she was already seeing Roger) and her devastating heartbreak, re-lived also through her earlier writing (in which: "Dave Carter -- that's Dan, of course. Roger is Larry and I'm Larissa Vincent"). It is also very much a novel about Laura finding herself, and her identity, as a writer. Near the end, she goes through her identities and transformations: "My name was Laura Jackson also known as Promising Beginner [...] My name was Laura Barber [...] My name was and was not Larissa Vincent". And:
What my name will be on the fiction-writer's title page is undecided, but for the moment I favour L. J. Vine (two initials and a monosyllable -- there are precedents for such economy)
       (That is, of course, more than just a wink at author C.K.Stead's name .....)
       Laura was a promising tennis player when she met Dan, and the back and forth of the game are obviously fitting here too. A clever, playful novel, The End of the Century at the End of the World offers an astonishing amount of material, tightly woven together by Stead, from capturing two different eras (with the 1970s beautifully introduced as: "It was the days of euphoria and Dionysus before the new cool"), to its depictions of politics, academia, New Zealand literary life (with Mansfield such a dominant figure), as well as the personal -- Laura's loves, Laura as mother, and, above all else, Laura as writer.
       Another very fine piece of work by this under-appreciated author.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2022

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Links:

C.K.Stead: Other books by C.K.Stead under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand writer Christian Karlson Stead was born in 1932. He taught at the University of Auckland and has written many works of fiction, poetry, and criticism.

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© 2022 the complete review

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