The idea of a fresh start, of a new beginning, has a beguiling appeal that has made it an enduring trope in literature. As well as a temporary escape into reading, books suggest the possibility that life outside the story might also be lived differently. All these narratives embody a utopian ideal: somewhere out there, there’s something better worth starting again for. But utopia literally means no place. There is a warning in this; set out in search of a new beginning and you may get nowhere.
The idea of a second go at living can also create a deferred experience of life. I know this all too well. When I was growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, looking forward to a new beginning was actively encouraged. I believed God would destroy the wicked, saving his true followers who would begin again in a paradise Earth. When I could no longer entertain this as a comfortable belief, I knew a fresh start was necessary, as I describe in my book The Last Days. I left religion behind, but I still believe in the power of books. I believe literature offers the best answers and strongest warnings; here are some of them.
1. Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
One day, middle-aged wife and mother Delia Grinstead walks away from her family on a beach holiday, carrying almost nothing, and hitches a lift to a new town with only $500 in her pocket. Through her lack of belongings and history, Delia is able to strip back the layers of her life, discovering what matters to her. She discovers it’s never possible to fully jettison your obligations. Fresh starts, we learn, are a lot more complicated than they look.
2. Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi
A beautifully crafted memoir of growing up in Enver Hoxha’s Albania and its aftermath. Ypi details her childhood love of communism: the order it brought, the sense of belonging it created. It’s only when the old regime collapses that she begins to question what freedom means, finding that often it’s the destabilizing moments that create the opportunities for change. Free shows that it can take a very long time and a lot of effort to reach a new beginning.
3. Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
An incredible family saga spanning 60 years, jumping across continents and time, forming a multi-layered book about secrets and inheritance. In the wake of their mother’s death, twins Byron and Benny are puzzled by two artifacts she leaves behind: a voice recording and a traditional Caribbean black cake. As the story unfolds the twins learn that their mother rethought her life without them, and they have to entirely reframe their idea of her.
4. Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Our protagonist, his memory affected after an injury, sets out to recreate a room he thinks might have existed. Initially, he spots a crack in a wall reminding him of another crack, so he decides to hire someone to recreate the whole room. From there the entire building follows, then finally actors are called in to recreate specific moods and events that again may or may not have happened. Having lost his memory he should be free to start again, but instead he is haunted by these fragments of the past. McCarthy creates a story about the impossibility of escaping memory as long as fragments of it remain.
5. Dictionary of the Undoing by John Freeman
Language, Freeman argues, has been weaponised but also dulled. The Dictionary of the Undoing attempts to redefine what it means to be an ethical citizen by taking the reader through a series of alphabetized ideas leading to direct action. This deceptively simple starting point creates a powerful polemic as each word builds on the others to create a resounding call to action. In the wake of the pandemic, the continued widespread disintegration of human rights, and the tightening climate emergency, it’s a prescient book showing how language might guide us towards new beginnings.
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Following the death of her husband, John Dunne, Didion takes the reader deep inside her experience of grief and the madness it brings, showing the near impossibility of moving beyond such a huge loss. Instead, as the year progresses, she becomes convinced he’ll return. All the hallmarks of Didion’s writing are here: her tightly honed eloquence, her pared back prose. It is also an eerily quiet book; grief both stalks and haunts the page. This is a new beginning that is almost impossible to move towards.
7. Pew by Catherine Lacey
In an unnamed town, an unnamed, ambiguous narrator wakes in a church. When the townspeople discover this person, they name them Pew. Pew either refuses to or cannot speak, and this unnerving silence is a riddle people want to solve: is Pew male or female? Running away or towards something? In the absence of signifiers and explanations, Pew becomes a cipher, first a code they can’t crack, then a zero they project their fears onto. Lacey’s book examines the expectation that if beginnings aren’t to unnerve people they should be explained. It also raises questions about silence and how it is weaponised.
8. The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths by Stuart Kelly
A biography of murderer turned Church of Scotland minster James Nelson, The Minister and the Murderer is not only about Nelson’s reinvention but the power that books have. As it unfolds, a doubling occurs; Nelson eludes Kelly, Kelly searches for the God he abandoned in favor of atheism. It’s a book that shows the complexity of fresh starts, and asks if they’re even possible in the wake of a terrible crime. And in the case of Kelly, is his return to God a beginning or a repetition?
9. A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
A Cure for Suicide opens with a man sitting on a chair talking to a woman. He’s only recently learned to call the chair “chair”, immediately setting the scene for a book about trauma, loss, language and the interplay of each on memory. In an attempt to erase his sadness, the woman wipes the man’s memories daily – this raises the question at the heart of the book: is it desirable to begin again? Ball never gives the reader an answer, he invites us to think. There aren’t easy answers; new beginnings can be as unwelcome as they are desirable.
10. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flynn
Flyn travels to some of the eeriest places on Earth to observe how nature recovers in the wake of humans. Flyn examines what these beginnings might look like on nature’s terms. This isn’t a book about humans, and yet it becomes a hopeful one, showing that our interference in the natural world doesn’t need to be catastrophic. Given the right circumstances, we can begin again.