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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

"Our Endless Numbered Days" by Claire Fuller

Judging from the reviews on goodreads.com this is definitely a marmite book; some people adore it and others hated it. To me it seemed to be a cross between Emma Donoghue's Room and My Side of the Mountain by Jean George (the Guardian review also spotted this), a children's book which I read about 45 years ago. Peggy's Dad builds a nuclear fallout shelter in the cellar of the north London home. When her concert pianist mother goes on tour, he and Peggy live in a tent in the garden, trapping and eating squirrels. But a phone call from Peggy's mother changes everything. Dad takes Peggy, renamed Rapunzel, later Punzel, to a hut on a German mountainside. As they learn to live off the land he tells Peggy first that her mother has died and then that all of the rest of the world has been destroyed. As she grows into a young woman, Dad's behaviour becomes increasingly irrational.

The book, written as the recollections of a mentally damaged Peggy, now 17, begins with a stupendous hook: the second sentence describes a photo of her father: "He didn't look like a liar". But why, I wondered as the story developed, should Peggy find his lies so important; were his lunacies not more important? Perhaps those she can forgive.

This novel's strength lies in the details of Peggy's woodland life: gathering food, rebuilding the cabin; the challenges of winter; the effect of hunger and cold on their bodies; the gradual erosion of their civilisation and, with it, their rationality. Although the reader can discern signs of madness in the father from very early on (as soon as he starts making lists, for example), Fuller can at the same time convince us that the young Peggy is unable to disentangle fiction from reality.

One of the sinister aspects of this book is the character of Ute, the mother, the pianist. Not only does she fail to teach Peggy to play the piano, she even fails to teach her German, which is Ute's language. Ute seems very cold and distant from the start, and the disappearance on a concert tour (after what would seem to be quite a long career break to have Peggy) precipitates the events of the story. Of all the adults in the story, Ute is surely the most culpable; she feels little sympathy for a husband who is clearly undergoing a breakdown and she goes off on tour abandoning her daughter to a man on the verge of madness.

An important character, foreshadowed just before the mid-point of the book, is Reuben who plays a major part of the third third as events unfold to their crisis.

Further analysis of this interesting book requires SPOILERS

My first thought was that this was a Gothic novel, despite the fact that much of it is set in Germany (although the original Gothic novels, such as The Castle of OtrantoThe Monk, and A Sicilian Romance, were all set in Italy or Spain).

There are some classic points which come from the story models such as the Hero's Journey. For example, the 'Call to Adventure' comes when Ute the mother phones Papa, precipitating both a furious row with the sinister Oliver Hannington (culminating in a thrown paperweight shattering the glass roof of the conservatory; the family home has literally been broken) and Papa's journey with Peggy to Germany (literally the Hero's Journey).

There is, of course, a fairy tale theme. This is foreshadowed when Ute says that she does not like Oliver Hannington: "He is witching this family - it gives me the creepers" (p 7); the Germanisation of the language adding emphasis. On page 25, Papa tells a story starting 'Once Upon A Time'.Other magical elements include the way that Peggy seems to be able to think of things that subsequently come true; for example she wants fire to come and burn them all up before it very nearly does (her anger when she wishes for fire is precipitated by ants in the honey and a long time before that she has looked at ants and Phyllis her doll has said to her "They should crawl through the holes you made with the fire" (p 61); at school she lies that her mother is dead before (somewhat later) her father tells her that Ute is dead. Perhaps Peggy is really distorting her recollection of what happened and suppressing facts such as that she (perhaps) started the fire.

The book also references fairy tales include Goldilocks (porridge), Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood (the wolf dies by the axe), and of course Rapunzel.

Then I realised that the central element at least conformed to the classic 'Voyage and Return' plot (see Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots). The five elements of this plot are:

  • Fall into the other world
  • Dream stage
  • Frustration stage
  • Nightmare stage
  • Thrilling escape

The fall into the other world:
Peggy and Papa travel through France into Germany until they reach the 'Fluss' (the stream). On the banks of the Fluss there is an initiation event. Dad goes fishing; Peggy gets bored and wanders off. Dad calls out to 'Rapunzel' that he has caught a fish; then he realises that he has lost Peggy. He searches, she hides; he strips down to his pants and dives into the river looking for her; he calls out for 'Peggy' and she tells him she isn't Peggy, she is Rapunzel. He gets angry, grabs her, shakes her; picks up a rock and brings it down hard on the fish lying by her head, on her trousers. He shouts' Fuck', she cries that she wants to go home. "His anger was like a popped balloon" says they can't go home and when she asks why he tells her (falsely) that her mother is dead: "The wolf took her, 'Punzel." He hugs her and she "felt sick thinking about the fish brains soaking through the cloth" of her trousers. "I stopped struggling and went floppy in his embrace and the awful choking noises subsided." And afterwards the one thing that never disappears is "the red stain in the shape of a duckling ... high up on the right thigh" which may have been the fish brains but I think was her virgin blood.

The next day they cross the river. Peggy cant's swim and almost drowns in the flood. As a result, she realises she will never be able to go back.

They have entered the magical world as clearly as if they had walked through the fur coats at the back of the wardrobe into a wintry landscape.

They find the abandoned Hutte in this world. Peggy discovers the name 'Reuben' carved in the wood.

The dream stage:
This is characterised by a series of whimsical decisions made by Papa:

  • He starts to mark the days by notching the door frame but then gives up, announcing that they will live without time: "our days will be endless" (p 103) . After all, time stands still in the magical world beyond the stream. 
  • Once he has made the Hutte habitable they move out of their tent into it and they celebrate by cutting the tent to make a kite (p 107). Peggy realises this makes their return to the real world even less likely. 
  • He tells her that the rest of the world has gone; that no one is left  “‘I went over to the other side of the Fluss,’ he said. Steady drips of water punctuated his words with a hiss each time they dropped on to the hotplate. ‘To see the damage from the storm. It’s worse than I imagined.’ He sniffed. ‘The rest of the world has gone.’” This is beautiful writing. By splitting Papa's speech with a description of what happens and using partial sentences, the author really emphasises what he is telling her. It is a nice bit of pathetic fallacy as well, with the dripping water and Dad's sniffing emphasising the sadness of what he is saying (although he is lying!).
  • He makes a piano for the Hutte (p 113) (he creates a keyboard but they have to sing the notes); he teaches her to play. It is now that we have a metaphor which is perhaps a key moment of enlightenment. The sheet music they have is the piece of music that brought Peggy's parents together, when Papa was a seventeen-year-old substitute page-turner for Ute, the great concert pianist. On its cover is a picture of an angel who "seemed to be untroubled by the fact that a baby was struggling under the weight of the book which he held open for her." (p 114) Not only is this a fabulously wry look at a cherub, but it acts as a metaphor for Peggy, the child, who bears the weights of her father's demands. At the same time and possibly most of all it is a metaphor for Peggy's father, the page turner, who was seduced by an older woman (children who are abused often abuse others; seventeen was both Papa's age when he met Ute and Peggy's age when she finally escapes his clutches) and crumples under her subsequent expectations.

The frustration stage:
Winter arrives. Papa and Punzel are dreadfully prepared. They start to starve. Punzel discovers footprints in the forest (p 145); she thinks they can be neither hers not Papa's (but she keeps them secret to herself; this is the second manifestation of 'Reuben'). There is a blizzard: Papa goes outside inan apparent attempt at suicide but Punzel rescues him.

The nightmare stage:
They have survived the winter, spring arrives. One night Punzel lights the candle so she can practise playing her music and Papa gets angry, shouting a her for wasting a precious resource, and she flees to her special hiding place in the forest, where she sees 'Reuben's' boots walking past.

Time passes "One summer" she finds Phyllis and then she carves her name ('Punzel') next to 'Reuben'. She tells her father she hates living in the Hutte and wishes it would burn. She starts playing her piano and begins to compose a new song: "There's no suitor left for me". Going outsider to pee by moonlight, she realises there is blood between her thighs. Her periods have begun (p 182). And then she realises that the forest is on fire.

She struggles to save them both, although "My father held my arm out over the fire - offering me up, whilst I struggled to get away from the heat"; later he says, "Perhaps its time to let it go"  and starts to throw their possessions on the flames.

"After the fire, when I had finished growing and was as tall as I was ever going to be , I insisted on a bed of my own." (p 192) Punzel is now a menstruating woman. She spends the night in the open and is disturbed by a landslide (the earth moves; Fuller can be disturbingly literal with her metaphors). As this is happening she is on the mountainside and her father is in the Hutte but she does seem increasingly able to dissociate herself from what is happening and look down on the world in a sort of out of body experience.

She buries her doll, symbolising the end of her childhood, and she goes to the river, mourning that it has taken Reuben before she ever got to know him, and she imagines him. The she sees him. It is these juxtapositions of plot that Fuller is so good at: doll buried, imaginary friend imagined and then brought to life. Stunning!

With Reuben she starts to imagine that their cleaning in the forest could become "a paradise for two" but her father is now making lists of poisonous plants and she becomes aware that he is intending to kill them both.

It becomes increasingly obvious that she is having sex with her father. "For the remaining days of summer I stayed out of my father's way ... Sometimes he still caught me though, made a grab for my dress and pinned me between his knees. I stood rigid and kept quiet, so that later I could be sure I had done nothing to encourage these episodes of weeping or anger, and subsequent apologizing. He often called me Ute ..." (p 229) She spends days with Reuben roaming the mountain, looking down on her father in the Hutte: "Everything looks perfect from far away," he tells her and again we have classic dissociation.

The thrilling escape: 
Then we have a clear sex scene (p 239) with Reuben, but it is interrupted by her father calling "Punzel!" Reuben tells her that he doesn't want her to die but her father is calling and she has to go to him. These two battle for her. She runs into the Hutte to find it has been destroyed, chopped to pieces by an axe. There is a fight. Papa stabs with his knife and severs part of her ear. Reuben hits him with the axe and kills him.

We flashforward to London where Peggy is sick in the bathroom and her friend Becky tells her that, now her hair has been shaved off, she looks like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (Rosemary had the devil's child).

Peggy returns to the river and crosses it but Reuben is not on the other side. She treks on the the mountain ridge and discovers that her father lied; that the world is still there (p 256). She has returned to reality.

The very last scene is the one where Ute reveals that she thought Oskar was Oliver's baby, leading to the fatal phone call; where Peggy announces that Reuben was her lover; where the police phone and announce that the forensic evidence shows that Reuben did not exist, and where Ute realises that the baby is therefore her husband's. But we knew all that anyway.

There are moments I treasured, when the author explored an everyday occurrence in a beautifully original way:
  • "Oskar laughed and turned the handle, twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too, with the effort." (p 89) is a beautiful observation.
  • "It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark." (p 8): a very useful saying

  • "He stormed about the room, making it even smaller" (p 166). We have all known someone who does that!
  • "Her hands were in her lap, clasped together. As she spoke she released them, and I could see red crescents where her nails had dug into her skin." (p 248) Again this is a fantastically clear observation. 
There are also some delightful metaphors. I have already mentioned the metaphor of the music, and of the shattered conservatory. On page 20 the neglected garden of the house in London is going back to nature; a nice metaphor for the decreasing grasp on rationality of Papa. And, of course, Red Riding Hood is the metaphor when, at last, Papa the sexual wolf dies with an axe in his head.

Hero's Journey, Fairy Tale or Voyage and Return; this intricately plotted makes fascinating reading.

September 2016; 292 pages

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