And after the end of the world……….life went on, because the end did not begin.
Claire Fuller’s first novel, the brilliantly titled, teasingly contradictory Our Endless Numbered Days, is a strange, disturbing, beautifully written book about dark family dynamics, the wonder and magic of childhood, deep fears, obsession, staying alive, the end of the world, all tied up with the enduring power of childhood fairy stories, and their dark symbolism
The book takes place over a 9 year time period. It opens in Highgate, London, in 1985. Peggy is 17. She has returned to her family home after a 9 year absence, disturbed and traumatised after being inexplicably missing, kidnapped by her father, when she was 8.
Back in 1976 Peggy was the beloved only daughter of a wealthy, apparently happily married couple, though both, in their own way, were rather self-obsessed. German mother Ute was an internationally lauded classical pianist, who has rather slipped into domesticity following her cradle snatching marriage to James. At 17, James was 8 years Ute’s junior.
Liszt’s Campanella plays its part in the story……
Despite the hazy gloss which the returned Peggy remembers, of the summer of 1976, there were definite cracks and oddities in her parents’ marriage. James had become a member of a group of Retreaters, survivalists preparing for a some-time imminent end of the world, `after the bomb falls’, by retreating far from civilisation, finding remote pockets in the countryside, learning again how to fish, hunt, gather. The group is led by a mysterious American.
Peggy, who is obsessed by the book The Railway Children, is nicknamed Punzel (as in Rapunzel) by her father. And, yes, all the symbolism and allegories are there a-waiting.
In the summer of 1976 Ute departs for a concert tour. Left in the care of James, father and daughter appear to have a kind of idyllic summer (in the child’s imagination) as they begin to act out the end of the world retreat in the jungly back garden of their Highgate mansion, which merges in the undergrowth, with the cemetery. They live under canvas, don’t wash, and eat squirrels and rabbits which James traps.
This, to Peggy/Punzel is all an enormous adventure, much more exciting than school and the discipline her mother imposes. And then the adventure gets even more exciting and wilder. James and Peggy leave the country, en route to Die Hutte, a mysterious hut deep in the probably Bavarian forest:
`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.’
His voice was deep and smooth; it lulled me.
`Outside we can pick sweet berries all year round; chanterelles spread like yellow rugs under the trees; and in the bottom of a valley a Fluss overflows with silvery fish, so when we’re hungry and need supper, we can just dip our hands in and pull three out’.
The Hutte is a real place, marked on a map, and Peggy is excited, as she expects they will meet Ute there.
However, excitement and strangeness soon turn very dark indeed, as once far from civilisation, James tells Peggy that the world has indeed ended, and the two of them are the only survivors.
Except, clearly, it hasn’t, and they aren’t. None of this is a spoiler, as we know, from the opening chapter, that Peggy is now 17 and has only returned from that hut in the forest two months ago. Peggy is forced to be an unreliable narrator because her father, who has created this narrative for her to inhabit for her endless numbered 9 years of days, has made a lie the reality by which the two have lived
An eight year old, and her father, in a dark, Grimm’s fairy tale forest, the only beings left alive, somehow having to survive the freezing winters. What happens to a child with no other human contact except one other being – no other world view except her own, as told to her by the other human?
A forest, too can be as inaccessible a prison as a tower. Not to mention the roles of various forests in other fairy tales.
Fuller’s dark, frightening book employs nothing of the supernatural – there are no tricks of external fantasy, but certainly the reader will be aware of the dark psychological undercurrents which the fairy tale is constructed to explain.
It’s a dark and twisted tale, but also has a strange beauty. There’s a kind of seductive dream in the Walden-like idea of that life in the forest, a kind of honest simplicity of living within the landscape, learning its ways. Though nothing in this book is simple, and its whole premise is fashioned on a lie a father has created for his child.
And thanks to fellow blogger, FleurInHerWorld, whose intriguing review of this excellent book alerted me to its existence