Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy lives in London with her German mother Ute, and her father James. Ute is a world-renowned pianist who seems dissatisfied with domestic life, while James, somewhat younger, seems resentful of her talent and preoccupied with his obnoxious friends, all of whom have a paranoid obsession with planning and preparing for survival in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.

One day, James takes Peggy to 'die Hutte', a remote cabin in the forests of Bavaria, cut off by a river with a waterfall that non-swimmer Peggy almost dies crossing. And when James tells her that his worst fears have been realised, the world beyond the river has been destroyed and everyone and everything she knows has gone, she has no option but to believe him. The title, Our Endless Numbered Days, refers in part to the point at which James stops marking off the passing days at die Hutte and any connection to civilisation is finally lost. The story is told by Peggy, and alternates between her time in the woods with her father and her eventual return to the outside world nine years later.

Image resultI must say that I found it tense and slightly disturbing right from the beginning, even before Peggy is abducted by her father. Claire Fuller excels at making even the perfectly ordinary feel just that little bit off-kilter, without ever telling us outright exactly what's wrong - Peggy herself can't articulate what it is that makes Ute and James's marriage somehow odd, what it is that disturbs her about her father's friend Oliver Harrington, or why she feels the need to tell a strange lie about her mother to cover up for her long-term absence from school.

It's clear to any adult reader that James is not only immature and selfish but also obsessive and delusional, while Peggy as our narrator is painfully innocent and vulnerable, a little girl who adores her LP of The Railway Children and her favourite doll, Phyllis, who eventually (and heartbreakingly) becomes a voice for her own doubts and fears. There's hardly a page where you won't want to reach into the book and rescue Peggy from her father, but only as the story of their nine years of isolation unfolds do we realise the full extent of her ordeal - and most importantly of all, the toll it's taken on her.

I have only one criticism of this book, which is that the pace feels a little unbalanced, with too much detail about the early part of Peggy's life with her father at die Hutte and not enough about the end of it. I think it's perhaps written like this to reflect Peggy's own mental state - she is, after all, not only terribly traumatised but also suffering from permanent memory problems caused by years of malnutrition - and of course, once James stops bothering to mark off the days on the wall of die Hutte, the weeks, months and years start to merge for her. However, it does mean that the final portion of the book feels rather rushed, and I'd have liked Peggy's situation to be explored more fully.

Our Endless Numbered Days is full of the imagery of dark German fairy-tales and post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction and there are some moments that feel like a twisted, nightmarish take on the early pioneer tales of Laura Ingalls Wilder - rather than presenting a family's isolation as somehow both intrepid and cosy, here it becomes furtive and claustrophobic, full of hardship and squalor. It's an excellent read overall and an exceptionally accomplished debut.