Perhaps I haven’t read enough post-apocalyptic fiction, but I found Claire Fuller’s remarkable debut novel extremely disturbing. Younger readers have grown up on a diet of teenage fiction dealing with marital breakup, drug addiction, homelessness, zombies, demonic possession and other dark topics, so maybe they take these stories of unrelenting psychological torture in their stride. Some hardy souls on Goodreads even found it yawn-making. Not me. I lay awake for hours after I finished it, and doubted that I could even write about it.
8-year-old Peggy is taken away across an almost impassable river into impenetrable forests high in the mountains in Germany by her father, a “Retreater” who believes the world will be destroyed by the Soviet threat. Once there, he tells her the rest of the world has indeed been destroyed and they are the only people left alive. For the next nine years they live together in a tumbledown hut, the father becoming increasingly deranged, winding Peggy closer and closer into his obsessions, and Peggy taking on a large part of the burden of keeping them alive. But in the hut she sees the name “Reuben” carved, and she becomes convinced that Reuben is still around. She sees small signs of him, and eventually she meets him, keeping this a secret from her father. It is her relationship with Reuben that brings about her escape. But this is no happy ending. 17-year-old Peggy, as we see in the sections set in 1985, is profoundly and permanently damaged. It’s as if she’s been colonized by the monstrous unreality of her father’s world.
I’ve given you only the barest bones of a mesmerising story, a story of Stockholm syndrome, of our absolute need for love and of the terrible vulnerability of the young to those they love. While the narrative sags at times, in general it keeps up an unrelenting pace. Fuller makes the wildness and danger of the nature that surrounds them a metaphor for the relationship Peggy’s father constructs between them:
Papa? When can we go home? I said in a voice so quiet he didn’t answer. I followed on behind him.
The sky pressed down on the land, leaving us walking in a narrow strip of air, charged with electricity. With one more check of the map my father said we had gone far enough. We sat down, high above the river on a shelf o rock. Looking over gorge which water, although colourless and insubstantial when cupped by hands, had worn through stone. On our left, the water forced itself through a narrow gap so that it burst out, roaring and rushing over rocks and boulders, falling to a pool far below our feet, There, the water was still for a time until it moved onwards, widening spitting, and foaming through more boulders I sat beside my father, my chin in my hands, watching him from the corner of my eye, trying to sidle inside his head without him knowing. On the other side of the river, stringy trees and bushes jostled for position between slabs of rocks similar to the one we sat.
‘Maybe there’s a bridge a bit further down, Papa,’ I shouted over the noise of the roiling water. He gave me a sideways look that meant I had said something ridiculous. 77
This river, that almost drowns them as they cross, becomes the last barrier against the outside world, the iron band that ties them into their solipsistic existence. Their horizon is ringed by immense stony mountains. Then there is the relentless power of the seasons, with their own laws that Peggy and her father only slowly learn to understand.
The other powerful symbol that runs through the book is the ‘piano’ Peggy’s father, James, builds for her, a keyboard gouged out of a piece of wood, with no moving keys or soundboard. Peggy’s mother, Ute, is a concert pianist but she has never taught Peggy to play. Now James teaches her to ‘play’ La Campanella, the one piece of her mother’s sheet music he has brought with them, a piece that has great significance because it brought Ute and James together when he acted as her page-turner at a concert. Peggy becomes obsessed with her keyboard and with the intricacies of the piece, practising for hours on end, and at first the piano is a bond between them. Gradually, though, Peggy begins to take her own direction, composing as she sits at the keyboard, singing the notes with James scrambling to write them down, never able to keep up with her. Music, at first another form of James’ control, becomes an assertion of her separateness from him, and a reaching out beyond the world he has tried to create for the two of them.
With time Peggy becomes confident in the natural world, but even as she does her father seems increasingly bent on their destruction. When a forest fire breaks out (that Peggy half-suspects he started himself) instead of fighting it he begins to throw their few possessions into it.
I saw that the bucket was crammed with things from Die Hütte – a ball of twine, our tin plates, the hammer and other tools…and I thought that he must have had the same idea as me: to save everything he could.
‘Perhaps it’s time to let it go,’ he spoke calmly. Tucked under his arm was a roll of animal skins.
‘Let what go?’ I scrabbled further backwards across the loose earth, my nightie getting dirtier, but he shuffled closer on his haunches. His face was dark, the sky behind him the colour of paper.
‘All of it.’ 187
James’ death wish becomes increasingly clear, and Peggy understands that she must break free of him if she is to survive. That’s when Reuben becomes a reality.
What is so haunting about this book is Peggy’s brave, loving spirit, in the face of the incomprehension and fear she feels for her father, a spirit that is turned into a canker, the worm in the bud.
This is a highly original book, written with an exhilarating fearlessness. It will stay with me.
Claire Fuller Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree 2015). Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction.