A chilling debut about a child abducted by her survivalist father to live in a forest
Fuller: a gripping tale of hijacked innocence
“HE didn’t look,” says the narrator of this extraordinary first novel, “like a liar.” She is talking about her father, after seeing the only photo of him that is left. She found it in the back of a drawer in the house she has just returned to, the house she hasn’t lived in for nine years. In the photograph there are five other men, all members of a group called the North London Retreaters, who used to discuss strategies “for surviving the end of the world”. Only her father put them to the test.
Peggy, the 17-year-old narrator of Claire Fuller’s first novel, finds the photo in 1985. It was taken in 1976, when James Callaghan was prime minister, Survivors was on television and CND-fuelled fantasies of nuclear disaster were widespread. That summer, Peggy says, her father “recast” their cellar as a “fallout shelter”, filled it with provisions and trained her to pack a rucksack at the burst of a whistle. When her concert-pianist mother, Ute, goes on tour in Germany, her father keeps Peggy home from school to camp in the garden and cook squirrels. One day, he tells her about “a magical, secret place” in a forest. Two days later they’re off.
The account that follows, of the holiday that turns into a nine-year hell, is interspersed with accounts of Peggy’s return to the family home. Tiny details hint at what she has been through: the “food called spaghetti” she doesn’t recognise, the “shiny toaster” she can’t bear to look at, in case she sees her face staring back. But it is only gradually that the full details of her ordeal emerge.
“You should have taught me how to swim,” she tells her father, after they have crossed a river and she has nearly drowned. When she says she wants to go home, he tells her that her mother is dead and “the rest of the world has gone”. And so they start a new life, in a filthy cabin in a forest, living on mashed roots and the rabbits and squirrels they have snared. As winter strikes, their food begins to run out and Peggy feels her stomach “devouring itself from the inside”. To pass the hours between meagre meals, she learns to play a piano made of bits of wood that produce no sound. And she discovers what she already knows: that “music could not sustain us”.
From the opening sentence it is gripping, this tale of life pared to its bare essentials, and of innocence hijacked by harm. Fuller’s understated prose makes it all the more chilling, and it is in the tiny details that the full horror shines through. Peggy doesn’t cry; she can’t afford to. Instead, she comforts her doll. And when she says her father’s singing sounds like “a trapped bird fluttering against a window”, we don’t need to be told that this is how she feels.
Fuller writes with a singing simplicity that finds beauty amid the terror: in the “bare branches of the trees” like “the lungs of the world” and in “grubs in gobs of spittle” that taste like “an overripe berry”. Peggy’s strange, new, shrunken world is brilliantly imagined and conceived. Only one element is less convincing, but the reason for this is later made clear. Let’s just say that the nasty surprises don’t stop.
Our Endless Numbered Days is a novel about power. It is about the power that adults have over children, and the power of the stories we tell. Fuller certainly knows how to tell one. Her sad, sinister tale of dark days in a dark forest might well have you crying out for more.