BitterOrange.jpg

I think this novel must be the perfect summer read. I've enjoyed it immensely amidst Britain's recent heat wave as its themes and setting sync with this feverish weather. It's told from the perspective of elderly Frances who is lying on her deathbed. She recalls a hot summer in 1969 when she worked at a dilapidated English country estate alongside a mysterious couple. An American has purchased this crumbling residence and they've been hired to catalogue and assess any architectural items of worth prior to his arrival. The once grand place has been ravaged from being used by the military during times of war and neglect from a once privileged family who gradually completely died out. Although she was in her late thirties when she took this job, Frances was socially awkward and solitary because she had an isolated life with her mother who she cared for until she died. By contrast, the couple Peter and Cara are rambunctious and outgoing so the bond they form with Frances is unique in this odd removed location. It's a dramatic, creepy tale whose expertly paced narration teases out a lot of mystery and suspense. 

I've read a couple of novels recently which meaningfully portray solitary individuals who have severe issues relating to and socializing with other people such as “Convenience Store Woman” and (the somewhat unsuccessful) “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. The women in these novels focus on their work and find fulfilment in a routine set of duties. The same is true with Frances who was previously content to pen articles about architecture in obscure journals. She's never had a romantic relationship or even a friend. So it's interesting how her friendship builds with Cara who is outgoing, but unpredictable and unreliable. It seems natural for such contrasting personalities to form a connection as a way of balancing each other out. I really appreciated the way the author sympathetically portrayed this dynamic and the many stumbling blocks they encounter as they variously connect or disconnect with one another.

It feels like novels about eerie English country estates are a well-establish trope in literature and Fuller builds on this wonderfully in her portrayal of the broken down residence of Lyntons. Wandering through the great house there are tantalizingly peculiar traces of the family who lived there for generations with secrets built into the very walls. Uncovering pieces of their story is as intriguing as the unfolding relationship between the trio who have taken on the task of assessing the place. The unsettling haunting location and Cara's propensity for superstition naturally builds a tension where something supernatural might be taking place. It makes the novel wonderfully atmospheric and raises meaningful ideas about the accumulation of so much history as well as considerations about who has the right to inherit the spoils of the past. 

As well as all these engaging elements, this novel primarily centres around the complexity of guilt. From her death bed Frances grapples with issues of culpability as we gradually discover what happened that summer on the estate. But all the characters wrestle in different ways with feelings of guilt from broken promises to neglecting the ones they love to possible murder. A local vicar also carries the burden of a difficult past. Within the estate there grows a large orange tree whose fruit appears sweet, but whose flesh is dry and bitter. It's a moving metaphor for the way people's outward personalities can conceal the waste within. Being in this isolated environment forces all these characters to variously confront their previous actions and consider degrees of blame, forgiveness or repentance. It adds a deeply emotional aspect to this gripping story and it's something the author is particularly adept at portraying as she's done in her previous two excellent novels. But “Bitter Orange” is an entirely new kind of book for Fuller with its riveting tale. The experience is like pulling twisted clinging vines off from some concealed artifact and uncovering the fascinating story it has to tell.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Fuller
4 CommentsPost a comment

“Swimming Lessons” opens with an eerie scene in which a man follows the ghost of his lost wife to the sea. Is she real or a spectre of his imagination? This doesn’t develop into a gothic tale, but rather it’s the story of a family split apart through betrayal and secrets which intelligently and movingly portrays the psychological dilemmas of both the missing woman at the book’s centre and the family she left behind. Fuller does this through a structure which alternates between the stories of two adult daughters who care for their ailing elderly father Gil and the letters their lost mother Ingrid wrote before her disappearance. These letters she tucked into several books buried within the cluttered personal library that Gil has haphazardly amassed over the years. It’s a process of discovery which creatively shows the different perspectives of a broken family.

Having read Fuller’s first novel “Our Endless Numbered Days” it’s interesting to see how she structured both these books somewhat similarly, but the effect is quite different. Chapters alternate between an approximate present and a time some years previously to build a more rounded viewpoint on the startling personal choices some of her characters make. This is an interesting way of portraying time because information is meted out for the reader to show how the past directly impacts upon the present. In the case of this new novel, at the beginning Gil discovers another letter which Ingrid hid away for him. After the prologue we see him in his present condition largely from the perspective of his adoring younger daughter Flora. But we’re aware while reading Ingrid’s letters in between each chapter what effect these must have had upon Gil’s troubled conscience. It gives a more artful and nuanced viewpoint on a case where a wife and mother vanishes from her family.

At the heart of this novel is an enquiry into the nature of truth. It poses the question of whether it is “better to live without knowing because then you could always live with hope.” The story dramatically plays out this philosophical inquiry through Ingrid’s disappearance. She might have drowned in the sea as she frequently loved swimming alone in the early morning. Or she might have abandoned her family. The family and friends she left behind have different perspectives on this question and they reach varying conclusions during the course of this emotionally-engaging story. So much about our relationships and the respective fates of people who we’ve loved in life is ultimately unknowable. The trajectory of this novel often touches upon very tender feelings so I became totally swept up in the dilemmas of the highly engaging characters. The parallel stories of Ingrid’s development and the family who are still dealing with her loss many years later build to a dramatic conclusion.

Fuller has a great talent for giving a strong visceral understanding of her characters’ complex lives and motivations through small suggestions made in dialogue and action. Older daughter Nanette is highly capable, responsible and has a romantic crush on Viv, owner of a local bookshop. Whereas younger daughter Flora is impulsive, unwieldy and dismissive towards the man that she’s been recently sleeping with when he clearly adores her. In the case of Ingrid, we get her perspective only in the second person through the letters she’s written to her husband Gil. The complexity of her character slowly unfolds as she makes shocking revelations that reveal her complicated layers of grief and the precariousness of her situation. This gives a highly original and striking look at motherhood.

 Ingrid and her friend Louise visit the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath

Ingrid and her friend Louise visit the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath

This novel will be especially pleasurable for any bibliophiles because of the portrayal of Gil’s considerable personal book collection. He’s not so much concerned with the content of these books as what previous readers have left within them: notes in the margins, doodles or paraphernalia tucked between the pages. I was reminded of Thomas Maloney’s debut novel “The Sacred Combe” where a man uncovers a family’s history through the things he finds hidden amidst the pages of their enormous library. This process of discovery not only builds a sense of reading as a communal activity but how every book is newly created through the process of reading – as a dialogue between author and reader. The books which Ingrid chooses to hide her letters within often make a wry commentary upon their content. For instance, an account of a chaotic gathering Gil brings Ingrid to is found in T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” and a recollection about Gil’s frivolous spending is found in Martin Amis’ “Money”. It’s not necessary to be familiar with these various books to understand the witty way which Ingrid adds extra meaning to her letters through the choices of books she hides them within.

“Swimming Lessons” is a richly engaging and clever novel that gives an enlightening and fresh perspective on family life. Fuller movingly portrays the difficult decisions a mother must make and the complicated long-term effects of grief and guilt.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Fuller
10 CommentsPost a comment

“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off.”

So declares a father to his eight year old daughter who he’s stolen away and taken to a remote cabin in a forest. From this point forward calendar time is obliterated. The two of them exist in isolation removed entirely from the rules of society. Their passports are destroyed. The girl Peggy is dubbed with the new name Punzel. Like the girl hidden away in the fairy tale, she's sheltered from any human contact but there is no secure tower here – just an expanse of wilderness. A self-sufficient life is meagre, hard and rough. She and her father James forage for food, set traps, reinforce their shelter and live by their wits. The only touch of civilization is a home-built soundless piano for Peggy to practice the music her mother used to play. James tells his daughter that her mother and everyone else in the world has died and that the land outside their boundaries has been obliterated. She believes him. Here they remain for many years.

The story of “Our Endless Numbered Days” is finely structured in chapters which alternate between a period of the late 70s/early 80s in the woods and 1985 when Peggy is reunited with her mother. So there is never any question about Peggy's survival, but the real mystery lies in why her father took her away and the series of traumatic events that occurred during this period of strict isolation. The novel contains several surprises which make it a thrilling read until the end. This is helped greatly by Fuller's assured talent for taking the reader to the edge of a very tense scene and leaving them hanging at the end of the chapter desperate to know what happens next. Often the proceeding chapter switches to another time period where the reverberating effects of Peggy's experience are acutely felt in more low key contemplative scenes.

It's very difficult to convincingly capture the voice and sensibility of young characters within a sophisticated narrative. I found Peggy's story believable because it's being told in retrospect from a time in her teenage years where she's trying to make sense of her life. Because of the emotional gravity of her experiences, she struggles to organize her memories into a cohesive story and make sense of them. Fable mixes with reality. Through the intense claustrophobia of the cabin space the imaginative blends into what's solid. So when she says that the angry father has turned into a ferocious bear or that she has transformed into a bird in hiding it feels literal rather than figurative. Peggy's doll Phyllis becomes a character in her own right, speaking because she's acting as a mouthpiece for the frightened girl's suppressed feelings and taking the role as her confidential companion. Amidst powerfully portraying Peggy's emotional reality the reader is acutely aware of what is actually going on because we can empathize with her harrowing experience.

A beautiful rendition of La campanella

Music is an important element that runs throughout the novel. Peggy's mother Ute is an accomplished pianist. Gradually over the period of the girl's separation the music of her childhood takes on a deeper resonance in her life acting as the touchstone to the girl's former existence and a wellspring through which she can creatively express herself. Liszt's technically difficult La Campanella is transformed through her imaginary replaying into something entirely her own.

The novel presents an extraordinary case where a girl's survival comes down to her own canny ability to imaginatively endure her father's extreme retreat from the world. It's compelling the way her distorted memories gradually unravel to reveal the shocking truth about what happened. Of course, she doesn't question her circumstances because as an impressionable child she trusts her father: “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 world simply wiped away like a damp cloth passed across a chalked board – became my unquestioned normality.” The meaning of survival itself is brought into question. Is it simply living/breathing or is it actively participating in the society around you? “Our Endless Numbered Days” is a gripping and powerfully-written debut novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Fuller
2 CommentsPost a comment