Waiting for the End of the World by R.B. Russell
PS Publishing, hb, £25.00
Reviewed by Siobhan O’Brien Holmes
Things are going well for Elliot Barton. He’s living with Lana, the love of his life, in a home they both adore, and his freelance work for a publishing house is steady and flexible. But then he hears an answerphone message from old school friend Vincent, and it marks the beginning of the end. Elliot and Vincent did something terrible as teenagers, and they’ve both been running from it ever since. But now Vincent has found religion and wants to confess to the police. After a lifetime of waiting for the authorities to show up at his door, Elliot might finally have to face up to what he did. But then he goes to see Vincent at his religious retreat, and everybody claims that Christ is back and living under their roof (even if he did get his prediction that the world would end in 2000 rather wrong), and things start unravelling further as Elliot gets pulled into a mysterious, unsettling search for the truth.
Technically, this story is a fantasy, but the recognisable fantastical elements don’t make an appearance until about 80% into the book, so don’t pick up Waiting for the End of the World because you’re craving magic or mythical creatures but because you fancy some incredible storytelling, compelling characters and a completely unpredictable plot. This book will suck you in, shake you up and spit you out wondering what on earth just happened. Russell is a fantastic writer and Elliot a charismatic, down-to-earth narrator, keeping the reader captivated even with the most unremarkable events. In one scene, Elliot and his uncle throw a small party, and one guest makes a nuisance of himself, so the other partygoers hatch a plan to get rid of him. The events aren’t momentous or even particularly relevant to the plot, and if I were Russell’s editor I might have suggested he cull this and many other scenes in the book that don’t drive the action forward, but I’m so glad he didn’t. Russell’s well-observed storytelling is so compelling that it’s impossible to turn away, a little like watching Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party, and it’s these everyday moments that really hold the story together. Elliot’s stories of childhood, his first job, his life with Lana don’t necessarily make for a zippy pace, but they give important context to Elliot’s impending downfall and get the reader crying out to save him.
For the first few chapters, schoolfriend Vincent exists almost like a ghost, hiding in the shadows of Elliot’s new life, hovering over him like a cloud threatening to rain down and destroy everything. The tension between the two characters is reminiscent of the relationship between Guy and Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. That constant state of unease and suspense keeps the reader on their toes throughout the story, even when things seem to have resolved.
The fantasy element comes as a surprise towards the end, and perhaps the story might have been better left as a contemporary thriller or mystery. Certainly, there are lots of really intriguing questions raised by Vincent’s actions and the religious church he has joined that are never quite answered because the fantastical climax of the story pushes those more realistic elements into the background.
Ultimately, this story is unlike anything I’ve read before and kept me utterly gripped to the end. It will be a slow burn for anybody looking specifically for a supernatural fantasy – Russell plays the long game – but when it comes, the reveal will stay with you for a long time.