Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

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Reviewed by Annabel

I’ve followed Fuller’s writing career since her marvellous debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, through her second totally different novel Swimming Lessons (reviewed here and here). Her third novel is different again. On first glance, it appears to be a country house mystery, however, to classify it as such would be to do the book a disservice; it’s more of a character study and Bitter Orange is certainly a drama.

A novel of dual timelines, we begin twenty years after the main events. Frances Jellico is nearing the end of her life; she’s being visited by a vicar who is keen to get her to remember what happened back in 1969. Frances isn’t telling, but she can remember the first time she saw Cara and Peter.

It’s high summer, Frances had been employed by the new American absentee owner of a crumbling manor house called Lyntons to catalogue the features and statuary in the grounds. She will stay in the house, using the rooms in the attic. Cara and Peter are roomed below, and she hears them arguing outside before she meets them. Peter, as she later finds out, is inventorying the house.

The first thing Frances does is rip up the stinking carpet in her bathroom. When one of her earrings falls off, going down a gap in the floorboards, she finds the floorboard is loose, and spots the earring:

It rested against a metal tube, the diameter of a fat cigar, sticking up from the dust. I tried to pluck the tube out but it was firmly attached. It twisted and extended up above the floor – a short telescope. I licked my finger to clean what appeared to be a small glass disc in the top, and I lowered my face to the tube to look through.

What I saw was another bathroom from above, larger than mine and more imposing […] I watched while the door opened wider and a man came in. It was only when he stopped in front of the lavatory that I realized it was Peter.

It was reading about such a secret device that gave Fuller the inspiration for this novel, and in an inversion of the usual spyhole trope, here it is a woman that spies on others through it. This discovery is the start of Frances’s growing obsession with Cara and Peter – who are her complete opposites. Frances is a 39-year-old spinster who had been caring for her mother, now dead. Frances is frumpy, repressed, never been kissed, whereas Cara is so free, Irish, with black flowing hair, wishing she was Italian, and Peter looks after her.

As the summer gets hotter, the days get lazy, Cara and Peter invite Frances to eat with them, and soon she is with them most of the time. Cara having found an audience in Frances to perform to tells her stories about her former life – some quite shocking. Peter tells a different version, who is right?

One breathing space is going to church, where Victor is the vicar. Victor is rather interested in all their goings on, and seems to take to Frances, although she is oblivious of this being obsessed with the younger couple. The house itself is a great co-star in this novel – a mansion of faded grandeur, left in rather a wrecked state by the army during the war. The Judas hole in the attic bathroom is just one of its secrets, and more will be revealed.

Bitter Orange is a slowburn novel, Fuller teasing out the sultry summer with some rich and carefully crafted writing. We return periodically to the older Frances and the sense of unease increases. Fuller cleverly changes tenses, letting the older Frances fade from present tense into the past, as her memories flow, this is so well done, you never notice. Of course, there must be a climax, and the novel gets increasingly claustrophobic in the second half, the tension inexorably builds until something must happen.

In playing with the trope of the country house mystery, Fuller has created a powerful drama, made all the better with the dual timeline that teases us so. I enjoyed it very much, and Bitter Orange will make an ideal summer read.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (Figtree, 2018). 978-0241983461, 282pp., Penguin paperback.

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