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Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

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 UKFoyles, 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! 

Comments

Alison Wells
Reply

Wow this sounds amazing, though dark, I always enjoy books that use the undercurrent of fairytales and the way you describe the very visceral rendering of the forest sounds powerful and effective. Thanks for a riveting review. Claire deserves success with this book.

kath
Reply

Thanks Alison. I feel sure you would enjoy this one. Claire won the Desmond Elliot Prize last year and it’s been great to see the book gain recognition.

ROSIE CANNING
Reply

Great review. I’m writing about 1976 for my Creative Writing PhD so am trying to read as much as I can. Would love a copy 😊

kath
Reply

Thanks, Rosie. Good luck with your PhD – I’m going to come over to Twitter and find out more about that! I’m guessing you’ll have read Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Isabel Ashdown’s Summer of ’76?

Cat Hughes
Reply

I remember 1976 – the year my brother was born – and I remember the heat! It’s a rare book that might shock someone who’s read as much as you have – so I’m intrigued.

kath
Reply

Yes, I can usually spot the ‘twist’ from very early on in a book but I was taken in, thanks to Claire’s skilful writing, and all the more shocked as a result.

That heat. I remember yellowed lawns, scratchy clothes, standpipes in the street and the hot light of that summer.

Komal
Reply

I want to read this book based on this review alone. This book sounds right up my street. Count me in for the giveaway, please!

kath
Reply

You’re in the draw. Good luck!

Jessica Norrie
Reply

I’ve had this on my list for a little while. I love the combination of music and loneliness. Musicians (I count myself one) are weird people and they attract other weirdnesses. 0r is this just waffle because I’d like to win a copy? What is not waffle is that I did my A levels in 1976, revising at the local open air pool. Strange how many novels are set then: Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and I think there’s a Penelope Lively too.

kath
Reply

And a Maggie O’Farrell and Isabel Ashdown’s Summer of ’76. How did you get on in your A Levels? I don’t think I would have managed to come away with anything but soggy notes, if I’d been revising at a lido.

Di S
Reply

Count me in please! This has been on my TBR pile for a while – I would LOVE a signed copy 🙂

kath
Reply

Your name’s been added. Thanks for dropping by and good luck!

kath
Reply

Congratulations to Alison and Rosie who’ve each won a signed copy of Claire’s book! And thank you to everyone for taking part in the draw.

Rosie Canning
Reply

Thank you, I’m so excited and look forward to receiving a copy.
A very happy and literary new year to you, Kath.

kath
Reply

And to you, Rosie. I hope you enjoy reading Claire’s book as much as I did. Thanks for taking part!

Rosie Canning
Reply

And thank you for the recommendations. I’ve read the Maggie O’Farrell, the beginning of Goats and Sheep (kindle) which is on the TBR pile but not the Summer of ’76. In 2016 I was concentrating on orphan narratives, so it looks like 2017 will see me reading novels set in 1974-76.

kath
Reply

That sounds fascinating, Rosie. I think you should definitely add The Finding of Martha Lost by Caroline Wallace to your reading list, in that case. It’ll fit into both of those categories.

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