Friday, 14 October 2016

Bookclub Discussion: Our Endless Numbered Days

Triskele Bookclub’s October novel up for discussion is Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days

I first became interested in this book when I read the review by Triskele author, Gillian Hamer on the Bookmuse review site.

About the Author ... Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize. Claire's second novel, Swimming Lessons will be published in early 2017.

About Our Endless Numbered Days ... Peggy Hillcoat is eight years old when her survivalist father, James, takes her from their home in London to a remote hut in the woods and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed. Deep in the wilderness, Peggy and James make a life for themselves. They repair the hut, bathe in water from the river, hunt and gather food in the summers and almost starve in the harsh winters. They mark their days only by the sun and the seasons.

When Peggy finds a pair of boots in the forest and begins a search for their owner, she unwittingly begins to unravel the series of events that brought her to the woods and, in doing so, discovers the strength she needs to go back to the home and mother she thought she’d lost.

After Peggy's return to civilization, her mother learns the truth of her escape, of what happened to James on the last night out in the woods, and of the secret that Peggy has carried with her ever since.

Along with fellow Triskele colleague, Gillan Hamer, reader Claire Whatley and book blogger, Linda Hill joined in the discussion of this book.

Liza: Personally, I found this book a 5-star read, and whilst it has garnered mostly excellent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it also has a few not-so-great reviews. I put this down mainly due to the novel’s disturbing and depressing themes of mental illness, kidnap and child abuse. “Disturbing … horrifying … just plain wrong… nauseous…” were some of the comments. However, in my view, the author deftly handled these dark themes through captivating, lyrical prose and by creating a sense of realism, despite the apparent incredibility of this “adventure”. For example, the deep forest in which Peggy’s father takes her to live becomes a third, very well-rounded character: a dark and threatening but very beautiful thing. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune’s review states ... Fuller weaves a hypnotic intensity of detail into her narrative that gives every lie the feel of truth.

So, how do you rate something so disturbing but so well-written?

Gillian: I don't think I considered the book disturbing at all, there are worse things out there in routine crime procedurals. The book stayed with me for a long time after I'd read it and I rated it 5 stars. To be honest the cleverness of the writing comes from writing this through a child's eyes so the naivety and perception we see masks the real horror of the situation. As an author I know how difficult this is to achieve so I have nothing but praise for the author and the writing. I'm actually about to read her next book 'Swimming Lessons.'

Claire: Overall, I’d give it 4 and ¾ stars. It’s very much a novel in three acts: one - life before Peggy is taken to the forest, two - the forest years, and three – what happens after. Acts Two and Three are definitely 5-star whereas the first part of the novel (before their years in the forest) has quite a slow build-up and it is occasionally quite hard to see where the story is leading. I think this is to some extent because we’re seeing mysterious adult behavior through the eyes of a child. However, I would say to any potential reader it’s absolutely worth persevering with what might seem a slow start. Fuller’s prose is definitely 5-star and all in all, it’s a brilliant debut.

I found it hard to rate Our Endless Numbered Days highly enough. When I read it I didn't realize that the author had been a sculptor and that doesn't surprise me in the least. The attention to the most essential detail in this pared down novel was perfect. I felt there was a deceptive simplicity in the prose that was almost hypnotic.

Liza: Given the disturbing themes, I would hesitate to recommend this novel to certain friends I know would not enjoy the story, however I would definitely recommend it to most reader friends. Would you recommend Our Endless Numbered Days and why?

Gillian: Yes, I would. Maybe it isn't the book for everyone, but I'm afraid there isn't a book out there to suit absolutely everyone's tastes - and nor should there be! I think you would have to be very thin skinned to find anything about this book distasteful - the six o'clock evening news is probably more graphic! But I think as human beings, we need to explore everything humanity throws at us in order to understand there are so many layers of what it is to be human and how important it is to be open to all of them.

I’m one of those readers who avoids graphic violence, cruelty or abuse in fiction, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Our Endless Numbered Days, perhaps with a caveat that the ending is pretty grim and dark. I loved Claire Fuller’s exploration of both the physical challenges of survival in the forest and even more so, the psychological elements. The ‘dark’ scenes were sensitively handled, in my opinion.

I don't agree entirely, Liza. I would recommend it to all readers, even those who have experienced similar themes in real life as I feel it would help them realize they are not alone and others can understand what they are suffering. For those of us for whom Peggy's experiences are way beyond our knowledge I feel Our Endless Numbered Days provides such emotional insight into these topics and themes that we become better able to understand the world around us and to empathise with those like Peggy.

Liza: Narrating a story entirely from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl might be cumbersome for authors as well as readers. As in Emma Donoghue’s Room, I felt the author handled this expertly. Do you think Claire Fuller handled this well?

Gillian: I thought the author handled Peggy perfectly in all aspects and I think for anyone considering writing from a child's POV reading this book is a must! I found the voice solid and believable throughout and the inner thoughts and feelings of a girl of her age, in that position, were handled superbly. Because of that I found I connected with her, despite the age gap, I understood what she was going through.

Yes, I do. I found Peggy’s narrative voice convincing throughout and at no point did the author lose the authenticity of that. Peggy’s trust, anger, confusion were all very real to me. If anything, I would have been interested in a deeper exploration of how she dealt with the challenges of puberty without any reliable adult to explain or assist her with that. It’s an aspect of the story that was rather skimmed over, I felt.

Linda: Absolutely. In fact, as I read I completely forgot Peggy's age, but just immersed myself in the narrative. This wasn't a character of any age, this was a real human being to whom I felt an emotional attachment. There is a clear 'voice' behind the writing, but it isn't Claire Fuller's, it's Peggy herself, regardless of age. I loved the fact that Peggy's voice wasn't a contrived childish one, but was simply that of an individual who had a story to tell.

Liza: Throughout the story, we flit back and forth between Peggy as a child before the “event”, her time with her father in the woods, and 1985, when she is found, an adult back home with her mother. I enjoyed reading each timeline as it gave insight into Peggy’s life before, during and after, as well as the consequential effects of the kidnapping and abuse. Did you enjoy it too, or did it disrupt the rhythm of the story?

Gillian: I thought it added extra depth to the story and I had no problem keeping track of the story. I think flashbacks, if handled correctly, work really well - and the author got it spot on here.

Claire: Hmm. Initially I found myself having to keep up with the time swaps but once I was engrossed in the story I accepted them and had no problem with them. However, I think it could be argued that a more straightforward chronological narrative might have worked just as well and would have given fewer clues to later outcomes.

I'm not usually a great lover of novels that switch between different time scales, but I loved this in Our Endless Numbered Days. I felt I was being given real insight into the characters - and indeed into a psychological world I'd never normally encounter. I also think that the iterative image of music helped draw the strands together so that transitions felt seamless and fluid.

Liza: There is one scene towards the end of this book that I won’t forget in a hurry, but I don’t want to give anything away! Was there any particular scene that remained with you, after you finished reading?

Gillian: Not so much one scene maybe for me - but the location in the woods. It was so vivid to me, maybe because it was Peggy's whole world for so long that she knew every tree, every knot of wood in the cabin. It became very real to me and I think that was one thing I recalled long after I finished the book.

Oh yes – the scene you’re speaking of! Grim as it was, it needed close and careful reading to be sure of what was going on as the author clearly wanted to retain a degree of ambiguity. It’s a clever piece of writing, but I won’t say any more than that…

Linda: There isn't an individual scene that sticks in my mind especially, rather a resonance of feeling and emotion that is still with me some 18 months after I first read Our Endless Numbered Days. I can still picture the cabin and the woods in my mind's eye incredibly clearly.

Liza: And lastly, the end of this novel had me wondering whatever became of Peggy. How could anyone mature into a “normal” functioning adult after this kind of experience? Any thoughts on that?

Gillian: I think it probably very much depends on the person. It's amazing what a human being can go through and come out again the other side. I would like to meet a grown up Peggy actually. I feel she would be a very determined and driven person as an adult, who would find it hard to trust anyone but when she finally did give her heart, she would give it for life. I think some people (and I'd probably include myself here) have a way of packing away the 'bad stuff' and 'bad memories' into a far corner of their brain - and if Peggy was able to do that I think she would mature into a good person who refused to be a victim of her past and went on to achieve great things.

Claire: It’s a good question. And of course, it begs another question: what is ‘normal’? Over the years there have been several real life cases of young people being kidnapped and locked away from society for years. As far as ‘normal’ functioning is concerned I suppose it depends on a) the individual’s predisposition, b) on the quality of counselling they receive, and c) most importantly, the support network they have around them. It would be a long hard adjustment but I think anything is possible.

I think it's surprising just what the human psyche can live through and still behave and appear 'normal'. We are incredibly resilient. Had I been Peggy, I doubt I would have dealt with the situation so well, but then until we are in certain situations we don't know just how we will respond. I certainly have taught youngsters whom I can't believe are so well balanced when I've discovered their past and their home lives. I could see Peggy developing problems in the future, perhaps having difficulties with relationships, but equally I could see her becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist to help counsel others!

Liza: Thanks everyone for your comments! If anyone else would like to say anything about Our Endless Numbered Days, please feel free to comment below.

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