Sunday, 13 January 2019

Our Endless Numbered Days

Next up in the new year backlog is 'Our Endless Numbered Days' by Claire Fuller which I was immediately drawn to when I read about it. The story tells of 'Punzel', as she comes to be called by her father, and how she is taken from her ordinary existence and hidden away in a remote hut on the pretext that the world has come to an end. It hops back and forth in time, giving the history as well as the present day, when Peggy has returned from where she went, to her mother and brother. Her father is fascinated by the 'survivalist' philosophy, the idea of living off the land, away from civilization, being answerable to no-one. When Peggy's pianist mother goes off on tour he begins to draw her further into his world. To begin with they spend weeks camping in the garden, but after her parents have an argument on the phone the two of them pack up and set off across Europe. They finally arrive at 'die Hutte', a rather more dilapidated building than her father had anticipated, but he tells her that everyone else has died and they must live here and fend for themselves. She is eight, so she accepts his version of events and they struggle together to live in this place. Even as she grows she does not question their situation, and having been traumatised by a river crossing that nearly drowned her she makes no attempt to explore outside the boundary that he has set for their world. Hidden in her secret hideout one day she sees a stranger's feet go past and then things begin to change. Her father's behaviour becomes more extreme and erratic and she is both frightened but utterly dependent on him. When she finally meets the stranger you begin to anticipate that their existence is about to be turned on its head. 

The whole atmosphere of the book is wonderful, so intense and, despite the mountains and forest, very claustrophobic. It is about the changing relationship between father and daughter, the trust and the betrayal. But I felt it is also very much about how children learn about the world; they must trust in the things that adults tell them, and only slowly come to their own understanding of the way things are, the process of growing up. We all, as children, inhabit the world as created for us by our parents. The young woman she is in the other part of the story, where she is back in the 'real world', is more confused and uncertain than the trusting 8-year-old in the woods. 

I was totally sucked in by both the story and the writing. I loved Punzel; she is not precocious and resourceful but full of the fears and inadequacies of a normal child. I have just this one quote, it is her with her brother Oskar (born after she disappeared), trying to ease herself gently back into her old life, learning how to be with people, but not knowing if she will ever be that person again. They have been discussing the swing seat in the garden:

"For a second he was confused, as though he was trying to work out how I knew so much about a seat that was his seat and had always been his seat, but a flush rose in his cheeks and I realised I had gone too far. We walked down on to the lawn, flanked by tidy borders, brown and crisp with winter plants.
'Can you still walk straight through to the cemetery at the bottom of the garden?' I asked, to make amends.
He didn't answer, just carried on walking. All day the frost had stayed, rimming every stalk, every leaf, every blade of grass. Oskar's shoes left shallow prints across the lawn. I trod close behind him, matching his stride and placing my feet where his had been.
If I can fit inside every one of his footsteps, I said to myself, my brother and I will be friends.
I averted my eyes as we passed the tennis court, constructed on the patch of ground where once my father and I had pitched our tent and built our campfire. Instead I looked beyond it, where the brambles and thistles had been cleared and there was more lawn and a summer house. It seemed to take only a few moments to reach the bottom of the garden, whereas in my memory the walk down from the house to the cemetery took five minutes or more. A high chain-link fence now separated the lawn from the trees, but I recalled their outlines as soon as I set eyes on them, like the furniture and ornaments in the house - unremembered until seen once more, and then familiar. Ivy was creeping its way back into the garden, reclaiming old territory." (p.127)

It is nothing like it, but it suddenly brought to mind 'Room' by Emma Donoghue, about a young woman kidnapped and held against her will, and how she struggles to cope back in the real world. I loved this book and will definitely be seeking out Claire Fuller's other novels.

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