Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (review)

ourendlessnumbereddays_fuller_tinhouseFrom the book cover:

My father told me many times that winter that the world ended beyond the hills…

Peggy Hillcoat is eight years old when her survivalist father, James, takes her from their home in London to a remote hut in the woods and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed.  Deep in the wilderness, Peggy and James make a life for themselves.  They repair the hut, bathe in water from the river, hunt and gather food in the summers, and almost starve in the harsh winters.  They mark their days only by the sun and the seasons.

When Peggy finds a pair of boots in the forest and begins a search for their owner, she unwittingly unravels the series of events that brought her to the woods and, in doing so, discovers the strength she needs to go back to the home and mother she thought she’d lost.

After Peggy’s return to civilization, her mother begins to learn the truth of her escape, of what happened to James on the last night out in the woods, and of the secret that Peggy has carried with her ever since.

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When it comes to debut novels, this one is a stunner from the intriguing opening sentences to the ending paragraph, innocuous if taken out of context, but a bit unsettling with the story behind it.  And in between, the story 17 year old Peggy tells is both fascinating and disturbing.

Highgate, London, November 1985

This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer.  He didn’t look like a liar. (p.1)

Beginning with her memories of the time leading up to the two week holiday turned 9 year ordeal, we slowly see the increasingly manic, violent nature of the father who tells her that they are the only two people left alive.  In a story full of lies and delusions, told through the memories of a young woman who was shaped and formed by them, it is easy to start wondering about differences between her reality and what is real.  From the start, the world is almost magically alive around her.  Her doll, Phyllis, talks and the forest is a living, breathing thing that watches, laughs, cries.

The cool, damp earth penetrated my clothes and chilled my skin.  I let the trees encircle and lean over me while I looked up through the canopy as if I were staring through a fisheye lens.  They checked me for one of their own and turned me upside down so that the faraway blue sky, hidden behind their leaves, became the land and I floated free. (p.139)

Occasionally I found myself asking whether this story was the magical realism the cover image seems to allude to, or if it was simply Peggy’s imagination.  Wishful thinking or something else, far deeper and much more disturbing.  And having been Peggy’s age in 1976 and 1985, there are other dark rabbit holes of speculation to resist going down.

The Liszt played itself in my head, fluttering and rippling, and something unravelled inside me; a stitch I had once believed was firm came loose–a tiny thread waiting to be pulled. (p.122)

Difficult to write about without giving too much away, this is a story that mainly focuses on the first year in Germany where Peggy and her father nearly starve in the winter and the final year living in the cabin, die Hütte, all framed by shifts back to London as Ute, her mother, slowly learns some of what her daughter went through.

The rhythm of our days cocooned me, reassured and comforted me.  I slipped into it without thought, so that the life we lived–in an isolated cabin on a crust of land, with the rest of the world simply wiped away, like a damp cloth passed across a chalked blackboard–became my unquestioned normality. (p.218)

Gorgeously written, Our Endless Numbered Days lends itself to superlatives.  Things you don’t want to happen, but know are only too likely, do.  But never fully in the way the reader expects.  There are lies, twists, and reveals that lay within a deceptively slow moving and placid story that gripped me and would not let go, reminding me of the horrifying fascination of stories in the news of the discovery of adult survivors of child abductions.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy a bit of mystery in novels with a literary bent that leave you a bit off-kilter.  A caveat to this recommendation though, is that this is at it’s core the story of a child being traumatized and as such is the type of story I generally avoid.  It also includes some coarse language, sexual content, and scenes that are not for the squeamish (or fans of squirrels) who vividly picture what they read.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Clair Fuller | Tin House Books, 2015 | paperback, 386

I first became aware of this novel through a blog post and immediately posted a linked reaction to it here, inspiring the first of my occasional Wish List Wednesday posts. The cover captured my attention and I was intrigued by the premise, but once I had it in my hands (after rushing out to buy it on release day in 2015) I became a little leery of actually reading it.  Somehow two years then went by, though I thought it had only been one, and I was spurred on to finally read it by the impending publication of the author’s next book.  Swimming Lessons will be published in the U.S. by Tin House Books on February 7, 2017, but I am determined to try not to buy it until I have time to read it immediately.  Wish me luck!