What am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.
In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.
Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.
He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.
We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:
When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.
While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.
It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.
Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.