'The Cabin at the End of the World' by Paul Tremblay
“The girl with the dark hair walks down the wooded front stairs and lowers herself into the yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass.”
In the opening sentence of Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, we meet Wen, the seven-year-old daughter “Daddy Eric” and “Daddy Andrew” adopted from an orphanage in China’s Hubei Province. Wen is bright and curious, and her daddies have allowed her this small amount of freedom: to search for grasshoppers in the front yard of the remote cabin they’ve rented for vacation. For a few short pages, we get to know Wen – her quick mind and inquisitiveness, her tender heart and easy laugh. We learn about her daddies through her: that Daddy Andrew grew up on a farm, that Daddy Eric is very cautious. We’re given just six pages of peaceful introduction to this lovely, unconventional family, this tranquil setting, before it all goes to hell.
Wen is soon interrupted by Leonard, a large man with a kind demeanor and baffling motivations. Leonard’s followed by a small group of similarly dressed people, all wielding ominous, self-made tools. They believe they are here for a purpose: to prevent the end of the world. And they need something unthinkable from Wen’s family to do that.
The rest of The Cabin at the End of the World plays out in something close to real time, never straying from this one small group of people – Wen, Eric and Andrew, and Leonard and his associates Sabrina, Adriane and Redmond – or this one elegantly rendered location. The perspective changes from Wen to Eric or Andrew, and occasionally to Leonard or one of the other intruders. But no matter whose eyes we’re seeing through, the scene looks increasingly bleak, the tension unremitting. Each new perspective only serves to illuminate a fresh and equally grim angle of the devastation as it unfolds.
This is an entirely different kind of horror from the author of A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – a horror better suited to 2018, perhaps, when religious zealotry is overshadowing reasonable and humane policy, when the end of the world feels just around the corner with every headline. A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are both about the horrors affecting one family, and while The Cabin at the End of the World certainly starts with a family that you will not be able to help caring about, it grows bigger and beyond, a horror that threatens to overtake us all.
This book goes to insane places, pulls zero punches, plunges into the most unimaginable depths. But while The Cabin at the End of the World is escalating its stakes to global proportions, it remains intimate and deeply human in the treatment of its characters. Eric, Andrew and Wen are a beautiful family, constructed with care and nuance and profound observational truth. Even Leonard and the trespassers who follow him are complicated and believable characters who are motivated by a conviction that is, if not relatable, then at least understandable. The Cabin at the End of the World posits that maybe there is no true evil here, only the evil of circumstance – that when everyone does what they think is right, calamity can still occur. Sometimes ruin is unavoidable. Sometimes it can change us and make us who we never thought we’d be. Sometimes it leaves us stronger and better for having weathered it.
It’s a harrowing read but no less riveting for that. The narrative is so organically propulsive, just forcing you onto the next page and the next until you’ve reached the last and know that, while you never saw it coming, there’s no other way this particular story could have ended. The Cabin at the End of the World is meaningful and inevitable and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s a remarkable achievement and certainly Tremblay’s most challenging book. It very well could be his best, too.
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