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.
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!
Reviewed by Daisy