Author, Book review, Claire Fuller, Fiction, Fig Tree, Germany, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller


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 from 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 in 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.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fig Tree, historical fiction, literary fiction, Nell Leyshon, Publisher, Setting

‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon


Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 176 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The very best novels are always the ones that tell a story in a truly distinctive voice — Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk does just that.

A teenage farm girl

Beginning in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty”, it is narrated by the ever-feisty and sharp-tongued Mary, who is 15 years old and has an extraordinary tale to tell.

Mary, who has a crippled leg — “mother says it was like that when i come out into the world” — lives on a farm in the West Country with her parents, her beloved grandfather and three sisters. One day her father tells her that she is to move to the local vicarage, where she will work for Mr Graham, whose wife is unwell, as a live-in help. The prospect is shocking, because she’s never been further than the top field of their property, and nor has she slept in any bed other than the one she shares with her sister.

She goes to the vicarage relunctantly. As much as she hates her father and the way he treats her, she misses her family and her usual routine desparately. But there is one good thing about working at the vicarage: Mr Graham has promised to teach her to read and write. And that is how we get to read Mary’s first-hand account of her new life.

An unforgettable voice

The most striking thing about The Colour of Milk is the prose style. There is not one capital letter in the entire narrative, but the sentences, so heart-felt and direct, are easy to follow.

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of the lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am still sitting by my window. the wind comes through the cracks in the window frame.
i am tired from doing this and my wrist aches from doing this. but i promised myself i would write the truth and the things that happened. i will do that.
and my hair is the colour of milk.

The narrative, which is very much tied to the seasons, is divided into four parts — spring, summer, autumn, winter — so that we experience the full cycle of rural life in the early 19th century. During the year we see Mary transform from a naive farm girl into a semi-literate woman, but along the way she gets to experience far more than she bargained for when Mr Graham wants to teach her more than her letters…

A memorable ending

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob. The story is so imprinted on my mind it has stayed with me for more than two months now (I read it on the plane to Canada back in April) and is by far the best (and most memorable) thing I have read so far this year.

It’s the type of novel I want to press into everyone’s hands and say, here, read this. If that’s not an endorsement for a fine little novel (it comes in a very compact size), I don’t know what is.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fig Tree, Julie Otsuka, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka


Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 129 pages; 2012.

Chances are you have never read a book quite like Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It has no dialogue, no main character, no plot. And yet the story is strangely beguiling and deeply moving.

Picture brides from Japan

It traces the history of “picture brides” of the early 1900s. These were Japanese women who sailed to America to marry the Japanese men based there with whom they had established a correspondence and exchanged photographs. (A bit like internet romances before the internet.)

The entire novel — or should I say novella? it is only 129 pages after all — is told in the first person plural. The opening paragraph provides a good example of the narrative style:

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years-faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

In eight brief but incredibly poetic chapters, Otsuka charts the life and times of these Japanese women, from their first arrival in the US — including the disappointment at meeting their new husbands-to-be who had often lied about their looks and prospects, the menial jobs they had to undertake (they worked mainly as fruit pickers or maids) and the difficulties they experienced learning a new language and culture — to their sudden deportation, along with their husbands and children, after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.

A racist, sexist world

Otsuka recreates an entire world, separate from the rest of the USA, where these women, who worked hard and dedicated their lives to others, were always seen as outsiders. And despite the lack of a main character with whom the reader can identify, the story gets under the skin and creates a momentum of slow-building anger. I’m not sure which issue affected me more deeply: that these women were only ever seen as objects (or slaves) or that they had to live in a world so starkly divided along race lines.

They learned that there were certain things that could never be theirs: higher noses, fairer complexions, longer legs that might be noticed from afar. They learned when they could go swimming at he YMCA—Coloured days are on Mondays—and when they could go to the picture show at the Pantages Theater downtown (never). They learned that they should always call the restaurant first.Do you serve Japanese? They learned not to go out alone during the daytime and what to do if they found themselves cornered in an alley after dark. Just tell them you know judo. And if that didn’t work, they learned to fight back with their fists.

If I was to find fault with this spare but resonant novel it would be that it offers no light relief, no sense of humour. Indeed, it is so relentless it is probably just as well that it is only 129 pages long.

Giving voice to a lost generation

But as a novel that gives voice to a generation of women who lived in the shadows, it is an amazing — and important — achievement.

The Buddha in the Attic was a finalist in the 2011 National Book Awards and last month it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Author, Book review, Carol Topolski, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fig Tree, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Do No Harm’ by Carol Topolski


Fiction – paperback; Fig Tree; 336 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Carol Topolski’s Monster Love and found it one of the most disturbing novels I’d ever come across. When I discovered that Topolski had a new novel out, I was anxious to see whether she would up the ante. I think it’s safe to say she has.

Do No Harm is billed as a psychological thriller, but it’s not your typical page-turner. For a start it’s structured in an odd way, interleaving several different story strands, told occasionally in the first person and at other times in the third person. The tenses are sometimes present and sometimes past. And yet, despite what could be described as a piecemeal, bitty approach, there’s a narrative tension that builds and builds as you get closer to the climax. I read it with a sense of mounting horror, but the denouement, when it comes, is brilliant.

The story builds on our worst fears: that doctors, with whom we trust our lives, are capable of doing unimaginable things to their patients.

Dr Virginia Denham is a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology working in one of London’s top hospitals. She’s held in high regard by her patients (for her genuinely caring manner) and her colleagues (for her brilliant mind, surgical prowess and management skills). But Virginia is a bit of an odd ball. While her staff are used to her somewhat unkempt, mannish appearance, no one knows the secret life Virginia leads when she leaves the hospital and goes home to her empty house at night.

In this secret life, Virginia has an odd system of eating in which she stuffs herself silly for three days in a row (which she calls “trips”), then starves herself for the following four (which she calls “quads”).

Choosing to eat like this put me in absolute control and I never had to depend on Mother for food. I never went hungry for attention or felt full of her bile. On trip days I stuff myself with the most desirable foods I can imagine — way, way beyond my appetite’s outer reaches. Quad days starve me into submission. During the three days of the trips, I can believe myself the most loved woman on earth. The austerity of the following four stops me wanting more.

Virginia also gets her thrills by self-harming while wearing lots of rubber. Her imaginary friend Ruby is often close by, encouraging her to do bad things.

The story is told in chunks and moves backwards and forwards in time, from 1974-79, in which we follow Virginia’s adult life, and 1938-1945, when we hear of Virginia’s childhood and her mother’s extra-marital affair.

Interleaved into this narrative are two other stories: that of Dr Faisal Usman, one of Virginia’s colleagues, who was sent to England, from Pakistan, to be educated as a child, but has never been brave enough to return to his homeland; and that of Gilda, one of Virginia’s patients, who has escaped the clutches of a cult and given birth to a son she doesn’t want.

This probably sounds very confusing, and I admit there were times when I wondered where the story was going. But if you hold all the elements in your head, you will be rewarded, because the ending draws all the threads together in one neat, and genuinely surprising, conclusion.

Topolski, who is a practising psychoanalytical psychotherapist, has created an amazingly complex character in Virginia, a woman who is outwardly successful and incredibly intelligent but who is deeply troubled and cruelly flawed. But be warned: female readers, particularly those who are pregnant or having difficulty conceiving, might find Virginia’s exploits too traumatic to stomach…