This week I thought I’d look at the endings of novels, as a companion piece to my last blog post, which looked at beginnings. Doing this without giving away huge spoilers may be a bit of a challenge but I’ll do my best!
Firstly, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (4th Estate, 1999). I’m going to assume a certain amount of knowledge here as there was a hugely successful film made of this short story, but I’ll still try not to tell you exactly what happens. The ending is this:
“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve just got to stand it.”
This is from the point of view of Ennis, a cowboy in 1960s America, who falls in love with his co-worker, Jack, when they are ranchers on the titular mountain. The two of them are emotionally illiterate, they have no words with which to try and understand their experience. This end line is just perfect for their story; Proulx’s sparse writing style with simple imagery like “open space” portrays their terse love affair (conducted mainly outdoors)and Ennis’ contained character exactly. The language is all the more powerful for its simplicity “you’ve just got to stand it” capturing the heart-breaking stoicism of someone who ultimately feels powerless to lead an authentic life, to close that gap between what he knows and what he tries to believe.
It’s a story of a romance, but it’s determinedly unromantic:
“The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap. Ennis lay spread-eagled, spent and wet, breathing deep, still half tumescent, Jack blowing forceful cigarette clouds like whale spouts…”
Reading Proulx is often like this, a multi-sensory, unflinching experience. She also has a great ear for dialogue, adding to the sense of her stories’ authenticity. Proulx has spoken about how highly she values the short story form, and so what you get in Brokeback Mountain is a perfectly crafted gem, where not one word is wasted.
Proulx has spoken warmly of the film adaptation of the story, particularly Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis. Here is how that ending was interpreted in Ang Lee’s sensitive 2005 film version of the story:
Secondly, The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I read this fairly recently, and I found the last lines quite moving, so I thought I’d include them here. They are:
“ “Keep going, El,” he says, “keep going.”
And so she does.”
These simple phrases capture a lot. The story is one of families, the secrets and lies that can make up the relationships people hold with their nearest and dearest. It’s a dual narrative, telling the story of Lexie Sinclair who leaves home to be with the worldly Innes Kent in London in the 1950s, and Elina, living in contemporary London, trying to hold on to a sense of self in the disorienting aftermath of having a baby:
“Elina jerks awake. She is puzzled by the darkness, by the way her heart is fluttering in her chest. She seems to be standing, leaning against a wall of surprising softness. Her feet feel a long way away from her. Her mouth is dry, her tongue stuck to her palate. She has no memory at all of what she is doing here , standing in the dark, dozing like this against a wall. Her mind is blank, like a ream of unmarked paper. She turns her head suddenly, with a great heaving, everything swerves on its axis because she sees the window, she sees Ted next to her, she sees that she is not in fact standing. She is lying. On her back, hands clasped over her chest, a stone lady on a tomb.”
Elina’s partner is Ted, and as Elina finds her way back into the world it gradually emerges that Ted’s parents have not told him the whole truth about his life. As Elina and Ted attempt to unravel the mystery, the two narratives converge.
I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoilers, but what I will say is that THTFHM is a highly readable examination of the absolute havoc families can wreak on each other; of how powerful the truth can be, and its forceful drive towards exposure no matter what. All the pain and turmoil often sits alongside love, and in the end all we can do is keep going. The last few lines are an understated, realistic and hopeful ending. The novel details the complexities of the ties that bind within a well-paced plot that ensures the reader keeps going until the last line.