'The God of Endings' is a heartbreaking exploration of the human condition
Early March might seem like too early in the year to state "This is one of the best novels of 2023," but when it comes to Jacqueline Holland's The God of Endings, I'm willing to make that statement. Heartbreaking, gorgeously written even if its darkest passages, and truly epic in terms of breadth and scope, The God of Endings chronicles almost two centuries of one woman's journey while also exploring the beauty of brevity, the power of love, and the importance of art.
The year is 1984 and Collette LeSange is a wonderful teacher who owns a special school where children are encouraged to pursue art and learn French. Collette is smart, great with the kids, young, and attractive. She's also immortal and feeds on blood, two secrets she must protect at all costs. In 1834, Collette — named Anna back then — and her father and brother fell ill during a pandemic. When her grandfather finally arrived to take her away and take care of her after her entire family's death, it was too late and Collette eventually succumbed to the disease.
However, after her death her grandfather brought her back to life and made her immortal before sending her across the ocean to keep her safe. Since then, Collette's life has been a long journey full of death, heartache, hunger, hiding, and persecution. Now, almost 150 years later, Collette runs her elite fine art school for children in upstate New York and keeps her hunger at bay by feeding on her cats. It's a calm life, and despite Collette's constant fear and painful memories, it's as good as it's ever been. Unfortunately, that calm shatters when one of Collette's students, a gifted, sickly boy, starts revealing information from his troubled, abusive home. Also, Collette's hunger is growing, becoming a constant, almost uncontrollable craving. To make matters worse, an old, dark god is haunting Collette, threatening to destroy everything she's built, and her vivid nightmares and bizarre events all proclaim the arrival of something incredibly dark and destructive that's haunted Collette before.
The God of Endings chronicles almost 150 years of changes, heartbreak, adventures, being on the run, death, and grief. In its almost 500 pages, Holland, with a strong voice and impeccable prose, delves deep into what it means to live forever and watching everything and everyone you love eventually — and unvaryingly — succumb to the inherent entropy of all things.
While exploring how eternal life can be a curse isn't new in fiction, it feels fresh in this novel. Collette's voice carries the narrative very well and pulls readers close to her in a way that her feelings are almost palpable. As the novel progresses, Collette, despite her great power, eternal youth, and ability to heal almost instantly, is haunted not only by her memories, fears, and Czernobog, an old Slavic god known as "the accursed one of darkness, the bringer of endings" — she also feels restless, scared, lost, lonely, deflated, and anxious. The gift her grandfather gave her is a curse, and the world she's perennially stuck in has never given her a reason to celebrate her immortality. In fact, the way Collette sees the world, along with her experiences and feelings, make this novel not only horror but also noir:
"After ample acquaintance with this world, I, personally, have found it to be quite a sinister place, a place where, more often than not, the strong crush the weak; sickness, hunger, and poverty prey upon the young and vulnerable; fools rule over the wise; and entropy moves all things ultimately toward disorder and decay."
The God of Endings is an exploration of the human condition that transcends genre. It is a deep, multilayered, complex, sprawling narrative about love, loss, old Slavic gods, history, otherness, and sorrow. Holland shows the fragility of a an incredibly strong character and delves deep into the anguish of watching everything you love wither and die, sometimes brutally and because of extreme violence. From her family to her first love, a strange boy who becomes a visionary, and then her second love and beyond, Collette loses everything, and yet she remains, pushing forward, traveling, forever escaping her past as she moves into an uncertain future. Her journey elicits a lot of empathy, and that's the element that makes dark narratives cling to the soul and get under our skin.
With her debut, Holland has carved her name on the wall of authors whose work obliterates any discussion of literary fiction versus genre fiction because it is both. To produce a first novel that joins the ranks of writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Brian Evenson, and Stephen Graham Jones, to name a few, is a superb accomplishment — and one that should make everyone excited about whatever Holland publishes next.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.