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.
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.
Reviewed by Daisy