“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.
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.