If you’ve always enjoyed the darker side of fairytales, be they Grimm’s original tales or Angela Carter’s delicious interpretations, Claire Fuller’s more modern take on one might be the book for you. Our Endless Numbered Days opens in the stifling summer of the 1976 heatwave, in London, but very soon veers off into the cool dark forest of our nightmares.
1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother’s grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.
Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.
Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival. And a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.
I was first drawn to this book by its eye-catching hardback cover with the chalk outline of the forest hut (see below) but the paperback cover is just as arresting and the reason why I now own both. The paperback cover is reminiscent of fairytale woods we’ve seen, including those more recent incarnations in films such as Into the Woods and Maleficent and the rather more adult-themed TV fantasy drama Game of Thrones where Northern Ireland’s Dark Hedges became the King’s Road.
I felt an immediate connection or sympathy with the main character, Peggy, partly because I was a couple of years older than her in that summer of heatwave. For once, it was good to read a book where the main character was close to me in age. I don’t think it’s necessary for your enjoyment of the book but it added an extra dimension to mine, especially with the nostalgia of some aspects of Peggy’s pre-abduction childhood, like the food and music. (Just to be clear, my father never went camping more than once (after finding a snake under his sleeping bag the one time he did) and certainly never with me, and while he may have stockpiled a great many things, mostly paper, notebooks, video cassettes and books, he wasn’t a survivalist.)
Claire Fuller’s writing is graceful and assured. She manages to keep a light touch even where the book is at its darkest; it’s an aspect of her writing that I really admire. She does it so well that when I realised the full extent of Our Endless Numbered Days, it shocked me to the core. And it’s a rare book and its writer who are able to do that these days. She paces her story well, too, keeping the tension taut, while allowing space for the forest world to unfurl around the characters, giving them some freedom to roam and explore their new home. The description of the forest is very evocative and it’s difficult not to hear the animal sounds, want to rub the earth from between your fingers and ease out the splinters from the wood, in order to distract from the gnawing phantom hunger pangs you’ll feel in empathy with Peggy.
There are moments of beauty and wonder, and others of brutality and ugliness, some driven by the need to survive, others by baser instincts. And what keeps you turning the pages is how strong the need to survive becomes in Peggy and how much you will her to make it through: despite being taken somewhere she didn’t want to go, hers is the better attempt at making this new place work for her, and finding her way through all of those endless numbered days. It’s very much a survivor’s story, rather than that of the survivalist. And I had to keep reminding myself how young Peggy is when her world is turned upside down and she’s expected to deal with this complete change from everything she knows. She’s a remarkably resilient young girl and one you can’t help but admire.
Our Endless Numbered Days is a novel you’ll want to shut yourself off from the world in order to read, although hopefully not in the same way that Peggy’s father chooses. Claire Fuller evokes a real sense of foreboding until it’s almost unbearable. But by that time, it’s too late, she has you in her web of intrigue, and you’ll need her to see you safely out of the woods. Make a cup of tea, you won’t need coffee: Our Endless Numbered Days is guaranteed to raise your heartbeat and keep it elevated until the very end.
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It’s available in hardback and paperback and as an ebook and audiobook from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about Claire, her art and her books on her website or you can follow Claire on Twitter. I received a review copy of the book through NetGalley but bought a hardback copy and subsequently bought two paperback copies, which Claire signed at an event in Bristol earlier this year.
I have two signed copies of the paperback edition of Our Endless Numbered Days to giveaway. Leave a comment below to be in with the chance of winning one!