This morning I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.
It’s 1985 and fifteen-year-old Peggy Hillcoat is at home in Highgate, London. The photograph of her father also includes his friends, all of them ‘members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’.
Peggy remembers the year the photograph was taken, 1976: her father built a fallout shelter in the cellar with space for four people. The fourth space was for his friend Oliver Hannington. It’s clear through her father and mother’s discussions that Hannington’s presence is exacerbating the tension between them. Ute, Peggy’s mother, is a concert pianist – ‘the youngest-ever winner of the International Chopin Piano Competition’ – and it is she who supports the family financially.
James, Peggy’s father, spends his time preparing for the end of the world. Initially he trains Peggy to pack an list of essential items he’s made her memorise and gat herself to the shelter in four minutes. Once she’s mastered this – and he’s demonstrated her achievement to the North London Retreaters – Ute leaves on a tour of Germany. James keeps Peggy off school and begins to teach her other skills:
My father taught me how to trap and cook squirrels and rabbits, which mushrooms were poisonous and where to collect the edible ones like chicken-of-the-woods, chanterelles and penny buns, and how to make ramson soup. We pulled up the stalks of nettles and dried them in the sun, then, sitting on the edge of a grave, I watched him strip away the plant’s exterior and twist what had been foliage a few minutes before into a fine braid. I copied him because he said the best way to learn was to do things myself, but even with my small fingers, the cord I produced was clumsy and malformed. Still, we made hangman’s nooses of them and tied them to a branch that we propped against a tree.
During this time, her father tells her stories of living wild including one about a family who lived in ‘die Hütte’. Why Peggy asks what this is, he responds that it’s a magical cabin in the forest.
After a visit from her friend, Becky, Peggy returns to school for the last day prior to the holidays. When questioned by the headmaster about her two-week absence, she tells him that Ute’s died in a car crash. A week passes where Oliver Hannington lives with them and Peggy barely sees him and her father. It ends abruptly, however, with a phone call from Ute and a huge row between her father and Hannington during which James throws an object at the glasshouse, shattering it.
In the morning, I was woken by three short blasts of the whistle. My father stood at the bottom of the stairs, legs apart, head up. The backs of his hands had plasters stuck on them in several places, and there was another over the bridge of his nose.
‘Pack your rucksack, Peggy,’ he said, using his military voice. ‘We’re going on holiday.’
‘Where are we going?’ I asked, worrying what Ute would say about the broken roof and the glass all over the floor when she returned.
‘We’re going to die Hütte,’ said my father.
The novel then follows Peggy and her father as they travel to die Hütte and set up home there.
Our Endless Numbered Days is unusually structured. Beginning in 1985 when Peggy is home safely and interspersing the later day narrative between a recount of the earlier years might have had the effect of diminishing the tension of story. However, Fuller’s skilful narration and careful choices with regards to setting, names and, what appear to be, minor plot points, serve to keep the reader on edge throughout.
The use of fairy tale imagery works particularly well as James leads his daughter off into the woods; anyone familiar with European fairy tales knows that only dark and dangerous things lie in the woods, don’t they?
Our Endless Numbered Days is a highly accomplished debut novels. I read it fascinated by the events unfolding, waiting for the inevitable horrors to occur; it wasn’t until I reached the end of the book, however, that the full impact of the world Fuller has created struck me. This is a clever, tightly plotted novel with a shocking denouement.
I’m delighted to welcome Claire Fuller to the blog to discuss the novel further.
The novel’s a dual narration but unusually is narrated by the same character at two different time periods; how did you go about constructing it?
I’m not a great planner, not any kind of planner in fact, so the structure just developed. But after a while I began to play with the two time periods – writing chapters about what happens when Peggy returns home to London, and others when she looks back to her life in the forest. I wrote through to the end of the novel and at that point I realised that the London chapters didn’t run together well – Peggy was having dinner before she’d had breakfast – and I was giving too much away about what happened in the forest. So I lifted out the London chapters and put them in a different document to work on them separately, and that’s when I changed them to just a single day in 1985. Then I slotted them back into the manuscript, revising them again so that any hints and clues were more subtle.
There are references to fairy tales in the novel – Peggy and her father go to live in a cabin in the woods in central Europe and Peggy’s name becomes Punzel while she’s there – what influence did fairy tales have on your writing?
The idea of referencing fairy tales came from a member of my writing group. I gave the group chapters as I was writing, and my friend suggested I make the woods more of a character and play on the fact that many fairy tales are set in a European forest. The fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers can be very dark – children are threatened, most often by a character they trust. So not only does Peggy become Punzel, but the porridge is too hot and there’s a shoe that doesn’t fit. Besides these, there are many more fairy tale references which I hope readers might pick up on.
Music is important in the novel – Ute’s a pianist, Peggy’s father makes a soundless piano in the hut – and the book’s also named after an album by Iron & Wine; how important was music to you during the writing of the book?
It was really important. I write with music playing. If I listen to the same pieces of music enough (as with Iron and Wine), I no longer hear the lyrics but they set a tone for what I’m writing. I also listened to La Campanella many times – this is the music which Peggy learns to play on her silent piano. And the song that James and Peggy sing together is an old folk song of unknown origin that I was taught by a girl guide when I was at school, and then taught to my children.
The reader knows at the beginning of the novel that Peggy’s home; how did you ensure that you maintained the tension having revealed this so early on?
Maintaining the tension was one of the things I enjoyed working on the most, although it was also one of the hardest things – drip-feeding just enough information to keep readers wondering and guessing about how and why Peggy gets home. But I don’t regard Our Endless Numbered Days as a thriller; I tried to write it so that it doesn’t all hang on ‘what happened’ and ‘who did it?’ And I know one or two readers have guessed the twist, but this doesn’t bother me at all.
As well as drip-feeding clues and hints I used the structure help to maintain tension. I was able to turn away from each strand just as something was revealed, or sometimes, almost revealed.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
I tend to have favourite books rather than favourite writers, but I do love all of Barbara Comyns’ novels, especially Who was Changed and who was Dead. It’s weird and dark and wonderful. Another favourite is We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. On every re-read its main character – Merricat Blackwood – still manages to beguile me. If there was one book I wish I had written, it would be that.
Thinking about contemporary books written by female authors, I loved The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, Alys Always by Harriet Lane, and The Virgins by Pamela Erens.
Thanks to Claire Fuller for the interview and to Fig Tree Books for the review copy.