The God of Endings: A Novel
- By Jacqueline Holland
- Flatiron Books
- 480 pp.
- Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro
- March 16, 2023
This sweeping vampire epic swings for the fences — and misses.
Jacqueline Holland’s ambitious debut, The God of Endings, weaves two storylines, one starting in the 1830s, another taking place in 1984, as the narrator, known variously as Anna, Anya, and finally Collette, tells the tale of her inhumanly long life spanning more than 150 years. In the vein of V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, Holland’s novel asks existential questions about immortality and the purpose of existence.
It begins during a tuberculosis breakout in Upstate New York in the 1830s that leaves 10-year-old Anna an orphan. Critically ill, she is taken in by her mysterious grandfather, who is able to restore her life, telling her, “Henceforth, you shall live on the lifeblood of others, you shall bloom but never decay, you shall live free from the hidden enmity of the physical world, whose laws are conspiring always to bring an end to life.” This opening chapter firmly establishes the vampire motif, though interestingly, the narrator never uses that word to refer to herself or others of her kind.
In the 1984 storyline, the narrator, now going by name Collette LeSange, is living in her grandfather’s old house and operating a private preschool for the children of the well-to-do. Collette, who has not aged since reaching adulthood, lives alone, keeping herself apart from mortals, or Vremenie. Nonetheless, she finds herself becoming close to one of her students, Leo, who comes from a troubled home. This storyline centers on her deepening involvement in Leo’s complicated family life while contending with her growing hunger (which she appeases by drinking blood from the neighbors’ cows, among other means).
While the 1984 storyline is compressed into several months, the historical one follows the narrator for over a century, as she wanders across Europe picking up languages and occasionally developing ill-fated relationships with Vremenie. Strangely, for someone who has lived decades beyond a normal human lifespan, Anna seems self-absorbed and naïve, her voice that of a young, angsty woman.
Despite its historical scope, the novel offers scant history, as Anna conveniently hides out in the forest for years at a time, making her exempt from experiencing or thinking about actual events or the state of the world. She does emerge sporadically — during World War II, for example, she protects Jewish children and kills German soldiers (whose corpses she stockpiles as an easy source of blood) in a small French town — but for the most part, she’s no more aware of the grand sweep of history than are mortals, nor does she develop any particular insight into human character. But Holland does sometimes give her narrator a reflective moment, such as here, when, while watching her preschoolers in 1984, Collette’s thoughts take a dark turn:
“Why is it always at these moments, these pretty, careless moments, when the children, so well dressed and well fed and happy, are enjoying themselves most freely, that I find myself suddenly thinking of all the other less fortunate children I’ve known?...children in rags, children dull-eyed with fever, children orphaned and scared, children with bleeding mouths, bleeding sores, bleeding skulls?…It seems, unfortunately, that nothing can protect you from your own mind, your knowledge, your memories.”
One doesn’t need to be immortal, however, to have such thoughts, and the infrequency with which Collette considers the plight of others points to the shallowness of her worldview. We should expect more from a creature who has celebrated her sesquicentennial. At another point, she marvels at the garb adorning her young charges:
“I look around at the children in their jean jackets and jelly shoes, bright pink scrunchies wrapped around off-center ponytails. How did I get here? What am I doing in 1984? What will I possibly do with the 1990s? Dear God, the 2000s? It fills me with something close to panic…”
These periodic intrusions seem like efforts on the author’s part to prove her narrator isn’t as self-absorbed as she actually is.
Collette’s fellow immortals might’ve provided interesting fodder for the story, but they’re largely absent; even her grandfather and his menacing butler, Agoston, essentially disappear. While Agoston does briefly resurface to retrieve the deed to a California property belonging to Collette’s grandfather (a puzzling loose end of a detail), his real purpose apparently is to pass along to Collette cryptic wisdom about Czernobog — the god of endings referred to in the book’s title — whose presence is often indicated by wisps of smoke and who functions mainly as a mystery to keep readers hooked.
Throughout, Collette is portrayed as a loner uninterested in connecting with her own kind while forming a series of short, inevitably doomed attachments with Vremenie, including an epileptic Austrian artist named Paul, and later, an orphaned Egyptian girl named Halla. The novel often feels at cross purposes with itself as it tries to be both a sweeping work of historical fiction and an original take on vampires. Ultimately, despite its sprawl, it doesn’t follow through on either promise. The historical element is thin, the details of vampire society undeveloped.
The most sympathetic character in the novel is Leo, the asthmatic preschooler whose negligent mother leaves him with increasing frequency in Collette’s care. His sensitive nature, artistic gifts, and tragic background make for a likable and well-drawn figure. Unfortunately, the novel’s ending is predictable and uninspired, although it does leave open the possibility of a sequel, which may have been the author’s plan all along. If so, she’s sacrificed closure and real depth for the allure of a multi-book empire.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.