Book Review: Agnes at the End of the World

Coronavirus may feel like the end of the world as we know it, but Agnes from Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams lives her own brand of the apocalypse every day. The unwitting member of a cult, Agnes rarely dreams of the outside world—unlike her sister, Beth, who just wants to live a normal “Outsider” life. When the unthinkable happens and the “rapture” comes upon them, the girls quickly find out the true meaning of love, life, and spirituality as one explores the Outside world and the other, the danger of her own people.

Set to be published on June 9, 2020, Agnes at the End of the World turns the classic girl-in-a-cult storyline on its head. The familiarity of teen angst set against the backdrop of not one, but two seemingly separate apocalyptic events (the Rapture Inside and the Virus Outside), provides an action-packed foil experience unlike any other. While escaping from a cult might be enough of a struggle for other heroines, Beth and Agnes are challenged over and over again, even after seemingly escaping Red Creek’s clutches. From first page to last, Agnes at the End of the World is packed with action both unexpected and elevated from the norm.

Still, as much as the book is about the characters’ struggle to survive, it is also about the importance of family, most notably sisterhood. Beth serves as a wonderful foil character for Agnes in her wild, opposite nature, but seeing Agnes through her sister’s eyes also allows us to view Agnes—a bit of a modest character—in a more impressive, illuminating light. Even when Agnes doesn’t accept how special she is, Beth knows from the beginning that her dutiful sister isn’t like the rest of the people in Red Creek.

Watching Beth through Agnes’ perspective lets us see more of who she really is, too. During the many parts of the story when Beth is “in rebellion,” Agnes sees her not as a bad person (as she was brought up to), but as a sister who could use a little guidance. When their perspectives on the righteousness of Red Creek swap, each girl gets a taste of the other’s way of life. As they understand more about each other, readers do, too.

Beth and Agnes’ relationship, while realistic for siblings, is also a current for the conflict between family duty and the call of adulthood. Both girls face the sometimes oppressive feeling of familial obligation, Agnes choosing to embrace it as she cares for her younger siblings while Beth fights it tooth-and-nail. When it comes time to choose between duty to their family and the freedom knocking on their door, the girls think of each other, and make their decisions as young people who have started learning more about the world around them.

Agnes at the End of the World certainly creates a world for the sisters to explore! Built not only as a setting, but a catalyst for Agnes’ adventure, the world acts as a character in itself, allowing us to learn more as Agnes explores and empowers herself. Instead of allowing Agnes to flounder or fly, her world—and the “prayer space” in her head—test her in ways that allow her to change her own way of looking at things. Another nod to the struggles of modern-day teens, Agnes soon finds her own form of spirituality instead of conforming to her strict society’s expectations, helping her to forge her own path. Her internal and external growth as a character, prompted by events in her world instead of others telling her what to do, allow Agnes to create her own feminist story after a life of oppression.

Beautifully paced and a stunning example of how to successfully use dual-perspective storytelling to its fullest potential, Agnes at the End of the World allows us to see Agnes’ life from every angle as she makes her way into the world. Perfect for fans of books like Wilder Girls by Rory Power and Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne, Agnes at the End of the World is truly a unique take on how spirituality, embedded beliefs, and sisterhood mingle in a world that feels all the more real thanks to today’s current events.

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