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.
Our Endless Numbered Days will be published in hardback on 26 February by Fig Tree Publishing (part of Penguin), and is Claire Fuller's debut novel.
Peggy Hillcoat tells her story in two parts. We begin in 1985, in London, and 17 year old Peggy is rediscovering her childhood home and coming to terms with that fact that her mother is alive. She's also finding it hard to believe that anyone else in the world is alive, after all, her father told her that she and him were the last two people left on Earth.
The majority of the novel is taken up by Peggy's 1976 story, that long hot summer when her father took her away from everything she was familiar to a run-down hut in the middle of an Eastern European forest. Peggy's father was a survivalist, he and his hippy-like friends were convinced that the end of the world was near. He'd spent years building up his supplies, writing his lists, making sure that Peggy knew the drill and could pack a rucksack in double quick time.
Peggy's parents fight, their relationship has always appeared to be one-sided. Her mother Ute is a celebrated German pianist, her father is the young teenager who stole her heart, their marriage was a scandal, and it's quite clear that Ute may have some regrets.
Suddenly, Peggy is snatched away by her father. Peggy thinks that they are going on a holiday, that Ute will join them when she returns from her latest concert tour. Her father has other plans....
Peggy is not seen or heard of for another nine years. Our Endless Numbered Days is the story of Peggy's life in the forest with her father.
The writing is raw and to the point, with flowing descriptive passages of their journey across Europe that evoke a particularly strong sense of place. This is no fairy story, this is no package holiday, this is a story of how one man's beliefs can trigger events that will ultimately change and damage the life of his family.
Claire Fuller builds up the tension, and anticipation through some excellent writing. Peggy's experiences in the cabin are sometimes joyful and innocent, yet she also experiences anguish, abuse and frustration as she matures physically. Peggy's views and voice remain those of an eight-year-old, it is the reader - older and more experienced, that slowly comprehend how desperate her father has become.
Our Endless Numbered Days is a very clever story, the writing is mature and betrays the fact that this is a debut novel. The dual time-frame narrations works very well and answers some questions that are raised during Peggy's time in the forest.
Peggy is a complex character, she appears older than her eight years at times, whilst at others is is very clear that she is little more than a baby. Her dolly Phyllis plays a major part in this story, becoming her confidant and friend. Peggy's mother and father are an excellent advert for those people who should never marry, their whirlwind romance could not last and it is clear that their relationship is uneven and affected by mental health issues.
And, then there is Reuben ... and that is where I stop talking about what happens in this story and urge you to read it for yourself. If you enjoy a story with an ending that is neatly tied in a bow, then be prepared, you are going to have to do some working out of your own at the end of this one. Claire Fuller makes her readers do some work too - for me, that is perfect, there is nothing that pleases me more than an end chapter that makes me think, that makes me question the entire story.
My thanks to the publisher Fig Tree who sent my copy for review.
Claire’s short fiction has been published in Vintage Script, From The Depths, After the Fall, and the soon to be released, Rattle Tales Anthology.
One of her stories was shortlisted for the Brighton Prize, whilst another, Baker, Emily and Me won the BBC Opening Lines competition, and was broadcast on Radio 4.
The Untelling, is published by Bookanista, and Crab Wood, a piece of non-fiction has been published on Tin House’s blog.