Our Endless Numbered Days, written by Claire Fuller, has resided on my to-read list for far too long. It achieved a huge amount of success, and was winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to get to this book – perhaps the enthusiastic praise for it made me slightly wary of delving into its pages. High praise aside, I have now read this book, and I am extremely happy that I did so.
This is certainly a book that I felt would have caught my attention regardless of the buzz surrounding it. Published by Penguin, the paperback edition features shades of blue amongst a cool toned silver, with an individual figure silhouetted before an isolated cabin. This combination certainly makes for a cover which is both beautiful and intriguing, and so the cover design by Leo Nickolls must certainly be praised.
The book itself is in the first person narrative of Peggy, a girl who is taken away at just eight years old by her survivalist father. Both Peggy and her father make a life for themselves in a secluded cabin in the woods, with Peggy father telling her that her mother, as well as the rest of the world, are gone. These two, alone, are the sole remainders of the human world, forced to survive against a brutal nature.
The book is split between two times frames; before Peggy leaves, and the present day, which is about nine years later. Because of this, readers are well aware that Peggy does in fact return from her experience in the woods, and the book builds suspense as to what happened whilst she was there, and what has caused her return. The author is clever to give reader’s enough to encourage and feed our own imaginations, yet leaves enough carefully planned silences to increase ours desires to know the whole truth. Although the book is framed between different temporal spaces, it did not feel confusing at all, with a clear distinction being made between the before and after events.
I know a lot of people struggle to connect with child or younger narrators, something I myself have experienced in the past. This was not the case here. I found Peggy’s eight year old voice (and even her older one) to be very authentic. None of the dialogue, or her individual thoughts, felt constructed or man made in anyway. It did not feel as if Peggy was a mouthpiece for the author’s own words, and everything she said I found believable. This can definitely be a difficult task to undertake, and Fuller should be extremely proud of her work and characterisation.
Additionally, the author managed to make me feel attached to the characters without needing lengthy back stories to establish the plot. The plot itself carries along at a reasonably fast pace which allows both character and plot development. I did not come across one boring page, and I could constantly see the novel moving forward to its climax. This was certainly aided by the tone Fuller is able to establish. With the development of Peggy’s father, and his survivalist friends from before they leave for the woods, an unsettling tone is established. There was something incredibly eerie, even cult like, about the way they carried out their meetings, discussing various end of the world theories in such a brazen way that it really did not feel like the workings of a sane man.
The book is just as well written when detailing Peggy’s life in the woods. Reading the book on the train for my daily commute to work, with the fields rushing past under a drab sky, I could almost picture Peggy’s isolated life, and how it could potentially feel to have such an upbringing. Peggy and her father are at the mercy of mother nature, and must learn to both conquer and cohabit with her. The descriptions of their chores and daily work did not stall the pace of the novel, but kept the reader captivated. Fuller described their daily rituals of life exquisitely, providing us with some idea of how life would go on in an environment which is so alien to our modern day world full of commodities.
One instance in particular which sticks vividly in my mind is when Peggy learns to play the piano. As well as stealing away Peggy, her father had also taken a piece of sheet music which Peggy’s mother often played. When Peggy expressed a desire and ambition to play, her father sets himself the difficult task of constructing her a piano of some sort. Initially, Peggy has to make do with keys drawn on to a wooden surface, practicing her scales and imaging the notes which her fingers are producing. There was something so poignant about this image, a lonely child, deprived of various basic needs, attempting to bring music into her new life using only her imagination to take her into a new world.
Her father’s attempt to provide his daughter with this instrument, needing to prove not only his self worth, but also that he is capable of looking after his daughter, was extremely problematic. How do you compare a man who takes his daughter away from civilisation, bringing her up amongst the elements, feeding her off a diet of squirrel, against a man who works tirelessly to give his daughter the gift of music. It certainly makes you reevaluate the way you view the actions of people, especially when placed in context with the ending of the novel.
I felt that the only thing which stopped myself giving this novel a five star rating was the twists and turns. Whilst they are definitely gripping, and in some cases shocking, I did manage to correctly guess them. I feel that there is a fine line between giving enough to foreshadow events, but then holding back enough to maintain the ambivalence, and I felt that this could perhaps use a little more refinement.
As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and it was without a doubt one of the best contemporary reads I have discovered in a long time. This is an accomplished, brave novel, tackling both thrilling and troubling topics with a high level of skill. I eagerly await Fuller’s next novel!
Have you read this? What do you think? Did you guess the plot twists?