Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was purchased with some of my Christmas book vouchers, and was the eighth entry for my Read My Own Books project. I chose to purchase the novel for two reasons – firstly, I had heard so many good things about it, and secondly, the initial sentence of the blurb captivated my attention entirely: ‘Peggy is eight years old when her father takes her to live in a cabin in a remote European forest’. I adore books which feature child narrators or protagonists, who are wrenched from their comfort zones and have to find a way to cope with their new and unfamiliar surroundings. I was half-expecting a dark, modern fairytale retelling to spiral from the pages.
Our Endless Numbered Days was the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015, and is also part of the Waterstones book club. The novel has been so well reviewed. The Sunday Express call it ‘Bewitching. A riveting, dark tale, full of wonders, suspense and revelation, light and shadow’, and Esther Freud believes it to be ‘Utterly gripping, hypnotic. I tore through it’.
Peggy is our first person narrator for the entirety, telling her story from a position of retrospective, a technique which allows her past to feel just as vivid as her present. Her father, James Hillcoat, is part of the North London Retreaters group, which prepares for imminent disaster, and her mother, Ute, is a world-class pianist: ‘No one ever described Ute as beautiful – they used words like striking, arresting, singular. But because she was a woman to be reckoned with the men composed themselves’. Peggy’s parents came together through a turmoil of sorts: ‘For the public and critics, her relationship with James Hillcoat was a scandal. Ute was at the height of her career and she gave it all up for the love of a seventeen-year-old boy. They married the next year, as soon as it was legal’. Her father’s best friend, Oliver, is frank about his beliefs, telling him: ‘You know what the trouble is with you, James? You’re so damn British. And the rest of you – you’re all living in the dark ages, hiding in your cellars, driving off to the country like you’re going on a fucking Sunday picnic. You still call yourselves Retreaters; the world’s moving on without you. You haven’t even figured out that you’re survivalists’.
In 1976, whilst her mother is on a tour of her native Germany, Peggy’s father, under a mysterious cloud of anger, takes her to live in a forest, in a dilapidated structure called ‘die Hutte’, far away from civilisation, and a world away from the life she knows. James tells her that her mother has died, and that is the reason why they are unable to return to their North London suburb. The reality of Peggy’s situation really hits home with the position of retrospect which she adopts: ‘I had no idea that this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and touched my knees around one of her stout legs’.
From the start, Fuller’s writing is quite lovely in places; evidence of her Creative Writing MA, it seems: ‘And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed whilst I had been gone, helped steady me’. The entire work is filled with interesting and intriguing details, which often add a sense of mystery to the whole as the plot unfolds: ‘The summer the photograph was taken, my father recast our cellar as a fallout shelter’ proclaims the first sentence of the second chapter, for instance.
Peggy is a lovely character, whom one cannot help but warm to. Her childish observations and ways of trying to take life by surprise are endearing: ‘I liked to wake without moving my body to see if I could catch myself in that empty place between sleeping and walking, just as I became conscious of the world and the position of my body’. She is made to grow up at the age of eight, little shocks coming at pivotal points in her journey to attaining adult levels of understanding: ‘As I followed behind him the diamond of blue canvas [from what used to be their tent] mocked me, the awful knowledge staring me in the face whilst I climbed that we wouldn’t be going home’.
The spacing of the plot points ensures that the reader’s interest in Peggy’s tale is sustained throughout. Our Endless Numbered Days put me in mind of Frances Greenslade’s wonderful Shelter and Claire King’s charming The Night Rainbow from the very beginning. The novel is engaging, and the tension builds quite marvellously. Fuller’s writing is taut and emotionally charged, and Peggy is a believable narrator who lingers in the mind for a long while after the final page has been read.