Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The world has ended. Everyone is dead — except for two people: eight-year-old Peggy and her dad, James, a survivalist, who has been preparing for this exact situation for years.
That’s the scenario that first-time novelist Claire Fuller presents in Our Endless Numbered Days — but there’s a twist: Peggy’s dad, who is a “North London Retreater”, has made up the bit about the world having ended. It’s simply a ruse to prevent Peggy asking questions after he’s whisked her away from their London home to live in die Hütte, a wooden cabin in a remote forest somewhere on the Continent.
But why would her father do that? Why has he kidnapped her and told her that her mother is dead? And how will the pair cope living off the grid?
Nine years in the forest
When the book opens it is 1985, and 17-year-old Peggy has returned to her childhood home in Highgate, London (their home backs onto the famous cemetery), after having spent nine years living with her father in the forest.
Her story is narrated flashback style in a naive, intimate and compelling voice. It begins with that long hot summer of 1976 in which her father taught her hardcore survivalist skills — how to trap, skin and cook squirrels, which mushrooms were safe to pick, and how to light a fire without matches — while her German mother, a celebrated concert pianist, went away on tour.
When I should have been in school, the garden became our home, and the cemetery our garden. Occasionally I thought about my best friend Becky and what she might be doing in class, but not often. We sometimes went into the house to ‘gather provisions’ and on a Wednesday evening to watch Survivors on the telly. We didn’t bother to wash or change our clothes. The only rule we followed was to brush our teeth every morning and evening using water we brought to the camp in a bucket.
These skills become vital when her father takes her “on holiday” and then announces that an apocalyptic event has meant everyone else in the world, including her mother, has died.
Initially, it’s somewhat of an exciting adventure for Peggy as they set up their new home, explore the woods around them and settle into a new routine, all of which is beautifully described in Fuller’s evocative prose.
But it soon becomes clear that her father is obsessive — the silent piano he carefully crafts and then teaches her to play is but one example — and a creeping unease sets in. Existence is fraught, especially in winter when the snow arrives and food is in short supply, and a dark claustrophobia descends on die Hütte.
As the years progress, Peggy’s unquestioning acceptance of her father’s authority and knowledge is called into question, particularly when she believes that there’s another man living in the forest near them. It doesn’t help that James’ seems to be descending into a sort of madness, putting both their lives at risk…
A grown-up fairytale
I won’t be the first reader to compare Our Endless Numbered Days with a grown-up fairytale — think Little Red Riding Hood meets Bluebeard, or perhaps Goldilocks crossed with Hansel and Gretel — but it’s also reminiscent of those dystopian stories I read as a teenager in the 1980s when nuclear war was a very real threat (I’m specifically thinking of Robert C. O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah) and everyone was intent on making sure they could survive an apocalypse. It also reminded me of David Vann‘s terrifying wilderness adventures in which parent-child relationships are tested to the limit by psychological threats rather than physical ones.
But that’s not to say this isn’t an original story, because it’s quite unlike any exploration of father-daughter relationships I’ve read. It’s also an interesting analysis of a marriage between a highly strung musician (no pun intended) and the much younger foreigner she fell in love with: their compatibility doesn’t seem to extend outside of the bedroom, with devastating consequences in the long run.
The structure of the book — the flashbacks and the slow drip feed of information — make it an exceptionally tense read. Apart from a small lull in the middle, I kept furiously turning the pages, trying to work out what happened next, desperate to know how Peggy escaped the forest and returned to London. It’s not a thriller as such, but it brims with suspense and you know it’s building towards an uneasy climax.
Indeed, the revelations that unfold near the end are unexpected and shocking, making this one of the most astonishing — and memorable — debuts I’ve read in a long time. I immediately turned back to the start to see if I could spot the clues…
Lots of other bloggers have reviewed this book, including A Life in Books, Consumed by Ink, Word by Word and The Writes of Woman (with an author Q&A). Feel free to leave a link in the comments if I have missed yours.
Note, the author was kind enough to take part in Triple Choice Tuesday last month: you can see her choices here.