Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Another great book from one of our favourite current authors, Claire Fuller, following on from the success of her previous works, Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons; Fuller has a masterly touch of quiet tension, gradually increasing the pressure on her characters. By focusing our attention on a small group of central players, we scrutinise each one in minute detail as though we are seeing them through a microscope.

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Bitter Orange starts almost at its end: “They must think I don’t have long left, because they allow the vicar in.” Frances Jellicoe, the narrator, is struggling with recollections of events which took place some twenty years before, when she was 39. Through her memories, we are introduced to the central characters – Lara, Peter, Frances – and place – Lyntons. As in Fuller’s earlier works the strong sense of a particular place is absolutely key to the work; Lyntons is a run-down country estate which has recently been bought by a wealthy American. Left empty since its days of being requisitioned by the army during World War II, Lyntons is now in a sad state and its new owner has commissioned Frances to give him a detailed report on the garden architecture and statuary. Her younger companions are there to compile a survey of the sadly depleted contents of the house, and the three are all staying in the semi-ruinous mansion. Frances is more or less camping in attic rooms directly above those being used by Peter and Lara. One paragraph gloriously sums up a sense of where they are staying:

My two rooms were on the west side of the house, just below the roof and chimney stacks. It was a floor of a dozen or so rooms heading off a corridor that ran north to south. All the west-facing rooms had a glorious view over Lyntons’ ruined gardens, the paths hidden by overgrown box and yew, a tangled rose garden, fallen statuary and the ravaged flowerbeds, to the parkland, the mausoleum and, beyond, a dark treeline and the hangers in the distance.

The relationship between Frances, Lara and Peter is slowly built up, and we see Frances, who previously led a secluded, lonely life caring for her invalid mother, who has recently died, falling for the undoubted charms of each of her young companions, separately and together. Their way of life and hers are worlds apart, and she is drawn in by Lara’s stories of her past and by the couple’s easy grace and style. They cook delicious meals which they share with her, trawl through the remains of the wine cellar, and happily furnish their allocated part of the mansion with treasures they’ve found remaining around Lyntons. If Frances is at all uneasy with the use the three of them are making of the items they’ve found and with the lack of any progress any of them is making on compiling a report, her doubts are pushed readily to one side as for the first time in her life she is enjoying herself and leading an entirely different kind of life.

The gradual build up of the tension is so beautifully written that it felt very real and almost tangible, as if we were hearing Frances’s own voice describing the few short hot weeks that were the glory days of her life. The end is inevitably bitter and hard, like the bitter orange fruits that are found at Lyntons, and leaves Frances once again alone. There is no sweet sugar to take away the resulting pain, and the final twist to Frances’s recollections is a hard stone she must carry to the end of her days.

I urge you to read this!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Peggy is the narrator of Claire Fuller’s remarkable first novel, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize for debut novels. Her story opens in November 1985 when she finds hidden in a drawer a photograph taken in 1976 of her parents, Ute and James, with his friends, Ute having removed all other photos of James.

“I stared at the photograph, still in my hand. The face of my father stared back, even then so innocent he must have been guilty.”

The novel leaps back to 1976, to the time when James and his friend Oliver are part of a group known as the North London Retreaters, who are preparing for an impending catastrophe by creating fallout shelters and stocking them with durable provisions (although the Retreaters disagree fiercely about what form the catastrophe will take). Ute is a concert pianist and while she is in her homeland Germany on a tour, James withdraws Peggy from school; they move into a tent in the garden of their comfortable house, and live by foraging and trapping squirrels until Oliver arrives unexpectedly and moves with them back into the house. One night Ute phones from Germany, the two men fight, and Oliver leaves. The next morning Peggy and James set off to find “die Hutte” – “a magical, secret place in the forest”, James tells the little girl, where he promises her they can live an idyllic life free from authority, rules, and the impending un-named catastrophe.

What unfolds certainly takes place in a secret place, but the life which little Peggy, renamed by her father as Punzel (as in Rapunzel) leads there is far from magical. It is raw and basic; the only food they eat is what they catch or forage in their remote forest. On the first night there is a huge storm and James tells Peggy that “the rest of the world has gone”. They live a dangerous and solitary existence alone for years with no comforts or reminders of their former London life, save for Phyllis, a beloved doll (who works well to externalise the girl’s mental disturbance). As the bitter winters wear on, the child veers between innocence and complicity, ignorance and ingenuity. She adapts bit by bit to her situation; while James is a chillingly convincing villain; and Ute feels like a living, breathing presence in die Hutte, brilliantly represented by the silent wooden piano which James carves, together with the fragment of some of Ute’s sheet music they have taken with them.

Over time Peggy becomes aware of a man named Reuben also living in the forest. As she and Reuben secretly spend time together, James becomes increasingly confused, desperate and morose, often calling her Ute and rambling about death lists. A final spiral of events brings an end to the years in die Hutte, and a shock realisation for Peggy that the world has not suffered a major catastrophe or cataclysm.

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Being forced to rejoin the world is hard for Peggy and it is equally hard for her mother to be reunited with her long-lost daughter after so many years. The portrayal of her return to London is as gruelling and tough as that of her days in the forest, with endless problems to overcome and questions to be answered, as her and our understanding of the truth of what has happened to her changes over the last pages of the book.

Disturbing yet delightful, beautiful yet brutal, Our Endless Numbered Days is a darkly fantastic first novel, which I thoroughly recommend.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.

Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.

Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.

Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet,  living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.

Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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