Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
There’s something about a power cut, or any other interruption to our otherwise on-tap services like water or heat, that makes us recall the intense fragility of civilisation, makes us contemplate that we are only a switch or two away from needing those emergency preparedness kits the Canadian government is always encouraging us to create.
Obviously when the apocalypse/earthquake/ice storm/financial meltdown comes I will wish I had taken it seriously and prepared like any sensible person, but it seems like too much effort to make this kit, not to mention all the perfectly good food I would let expire. (The government, keen not to be seen to promote food waste, very practically recommends eating the food in your kit before its use-by date and then replacing it with a new batch.) Plus, where would you keep these supplies, and what are the chances both of being at home when disaster strikes and of not having any other food? In any case, wouldn’t creating an emergency kit be tantamount to admitting that we don’t really trust this rickety thing called civilisation, which any fool can see is not even skin deep? I think that’s really behind my aversion to the idea. If I’m going to admit that much, then surely I’m only one step away from becoming a prepper and stockpiling tinfoil and tampons for when the shtf.
Anyway, one evening before Christmas we had a power cut. In the dark I came across this package I’d forgotten to open earlier. I pulled out a bundle of hard, lumpy things wrapped in a scrap of brown material and tied with jute twine. I was amused, then, to find in the bundle some candles, a tin of Spam, a few lists of emergency supplies and a ball of twine. Also, most importantly, a box of very good quality matches.
This package was all part of an excellent marketing strategy for Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy Hillcoat is from a well-off family living in London. In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father—a man who has long been planning his retreat from civilisation—takes her away to a forest to live. Their shelter is “die Hütte”; beyond the trees and the mountains there is, he tells Peggy, nothing. Peggy believes that her mother and everyone else in the world is now dead.
Peggy and her father live for an astonishing nine years in the forest, hunting and growing their own food, surviving the winters, and never seeing a single other person. This narrative is interleaved with the story of Peggy’s return to civilisation—her mother, a nine-year-old brother she’s never met, some friends who haven’t aged in her mind since she saw them last. It’s not easy, coming home, especially when you’ve had the experiences Peggy has lived through.
This novel took quite some time to get going. For almost the entire first half, the survival sections were too slow, too full of “I” sentences. The forest scene had to be well set up in order for us to believe in the continued existence of Peggy and her father, but it drags–and I say that as someone interested in how a person might live entirely self-sufficiently. The problem is compounded by a first-person narrative that mediates every sensation with “I heard” or “I felt.” What kept me reading through these slow parts was Peggy’s re-entry into society. She’s surprisingly sullen about the whole thing, and her relationship with her mother is—oddly yet fittingly—marked by a typical teenage “you don’t understand anything about me or my life” attitude, which works well here. Even in these sections, though, I felt I was waiting a little too long for payoff in the first half.
As Peggy gets older, tension in the forest mounts and both writing and structure improve. When Peggy starts to wander further, she meets the elusive Reuben and begins to realise that perhaps her father has been lying to her all this time. There’s no single clear moment when she decides to rebel, but things come to a head when her father, increasingly deranged, decides that it’s all too difficult, and that it’s time for them both to die. She promises to go with him, and for a time believes that it’s a promise she must keep, watching fatalistically from a distance as he hunts for poisonous mushrooms. She changes her mind just in time, but this decision has significant consequences both for her immediate situation and for the rest of her life.
There are some faults with this novel—the characters, even Peggy, are a bit thin and shadowy, and it could have been more forcefully edited to great effect. There’s also a musical theme throughout (Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist but has never taught Peggy to play the piano; she learns from a single sheet of music her father brought with them, and plays for hours on a soundless “piano” that her father constructs) that I found annoying but very typical of contemporary upmarket mainstream novels. These themes are never load-bearing; rather, they could be knocked out without affecting the overall construction, but giving a sense of spaciousness instead of fussiness. Overall, though, Our Endless Numbered Days is an interesting story that deals with a great many aspects of inter-human relationships, and it finishes up with a very well executed slow reveal about the nature of mind and memory under intense stress.