Reviewed by Annabel
They say that every picture tells a story – or sometimes more. When seventeen year old Peggy finds an old photograph of her family and Oliver, the American friend of her father’s who lived with them for a while around nine years ago, she misses her father and cuts out his face to put it close to her heart – the question is does her father deserve such devotion?
Peggy’s family is not exactly ordinary. Her German mother, Ute, is a concert pianist of some renown who met her father when he stepped in as her replacement page-turner. James is a member of the North London Retreaters – a small group of men who believe the end of the world is coming and that they will survive. Egged on by group leader Oliver, an American, James becomes obsessed by it.
Back in 1976, when Ute goes off on a concert tour, James and Peggy take to living in a tent in the garden. He lets her skip school. They spend their days hunting and cooking squirrels and watching the day go by in the cemetery at the bottom of the garden. Her father tells her stories around the campfire:
‘Long ago, in a land called Hampshire,’ he said, ‘there was a family who lived together in die Hütte. They survived off the land and no one ever told them what to do.’
‘What’s a Hütte?’ I asked.
‘A magical, secret place in the forest,’ my father said with a catch in his voice. ‘Our very own little cabin, with wooden walls, and wooden floors, and wooden shutters at the windows. …’
‘Can we go there, Papa?’ I yawned.
‘Perhaps,’ he said as I closed my eyes.
Then Oliver arrives to move in and they abandon camp. One night James and Oliver row and the next day James tells Peggy they are going to die Hütte and that Ute will meet them there. They set off on a long journey to the heart of the German forest where a dilapidated hut will be their home for the next nine years. It’s now summer, so they can set about fixing the hut and putting all those bushcraft skills to good use.
On the journey James had delivered a killer blow to Peggy, who had decided she wanted to be called Rapunzel. He told her that her mother was dead, ‘The wolf took her, Punzel.’ Installed at die Hütte, the next blow came after a bad storm, ‘The rest of the world has gone.’ he says, and puts her passport on the fire. Not being able to swim, Peggy is trapped in the clearing bounded by the river or Fluss as they call it.
The only thing they have to remind her of her mother is a piece of sheet music. Lizst’s piano study La Campanella (the little bell) which is a bravura exercise on a theme by Paganini and was one of Ute’s concert pieces. (I can recommend this clip of Evgeny Kissin playing it at the Proms in 1997 if you want to hear it.) This piece of music runs through the novel like an idée fixe, especially once James makes Peggy a sort of keyboard to learn it on. This piano is soundless though, so Peggy’s version in her head is yet another variation on Paganini’s famous theme.
Peggy is devoted to her father and believes everything he said, but she is growing up too. The novel gets darker and darker as the years go by. James gets harder and harder to live with and you know that something will happen. We know from the beginning of the novel that Peggy’s mother isn’t dead. This lets the author create an aura of suspense from the start that builds and builds as the story is teased out in both timelines. There are some great cliff-hangers too, which aren’t resolved until maybe a chapter later due to the switch in narratives. Things may happen in one timeline which have a component in the other too. This all adds depth to the plot and it’s skilfully done.
Die Hütte is definitely not a fairy-tale cottage in the woods, but the symbolism of it is pure Grimm. The cabin is so decrepit it’s the antithesis of a gingerbread house. When James tells Peggy that the wolf got her mother we begin looking over our shoulders for the big bad wolf himself to make a real appearance. We all know how Grimm’s fairy-tales tend to end too – the parallels are clever.
Fuller’s characters are intriguing to say the least. There is a generation gap between James and Ute. While they are not exactly toy boy and cougar, their relationship is strained with Ute’s primary concern being her career. James seems a bit of a waster, compared with Ute’s strong work ethic and need to practice. Was Peggy planned? Ute obviously loves her young daughter, but she loves the piano more. Peggy tells us:
The dots, sticks and lines blurring in front of me meant nothing. Ute had never taught me even one note. … Like the German language, Ute had kept the music for herself.
Peggy of course is still a teenager at the end of the novel, not yet a fully-fledged young woman. Having spent years isolated in the woods living by the seasons rather than numbered days, she has been robbed of a normal experience of puberty. Her only confidante was her doll Phyllis, who takes on the persona of being a character in her own right as sounding board and comforter. The older Peggy has a lot of coming to terms with what happened to do. It’s no wonder that her memories are not truly reliable as she seeks answers to her questions.
There are lighter moments in this novel, such as where father and daughter are at one with their environment in the sunshine. There is humour too, including a great moment involving squirrels (read a short essay Claire wrote about her squirrel research here). At its heart though, Our Endless Numbered Days is a dark novel of the most enjoyable kind and, at the time of writing, the best book I’ve read this year.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and isn’t keen on the idea of eating acorn porridge.
Claire Fuller has written an article on her novel for our BookBuzz section here.
Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree, London, 2015). 978-0241003930, 304 pp., hardback.