Clair Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days utterly captured me with its strange tale of a father and daughter living out his survivalist fantasy for years alone in the woods and its bizarre aftermath. (Fortunately not at all like Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling’s repulsive treatment of a similar theme.) But Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller’s second novel, failed to catch fire for me, perhaps because both the characters and the setting were very damp. The latest, Bitter Orange, is un-put-downable gripping though one would expect the principal character to be a drab. Frances presently lays dying in a palliative care unit and her memory keeps returning to the events of the summer of 1969 when her dull life took an unexpectedly exciting turn. Her mother finally died after Frances has spent years as her principal caregiver, barely maintaining a career as an architectural historian. Then she was hired by an American millionaire who had acquired a ruined mansion in Hampshire called Lyntons to appraise its grounds, probably to find valuable objets (such as a Palladian bridge) that could be dismantled for shipping overseas. But Frances finds she is sharing the place with a younger couple. Peter is an antiques dealer, his task to value the furnishings of the house, of which there appear to be none as the army wrecked the place when they requisitioned it during the war. (Sort of like in Brideshead Revisited.) Cara is an extravert given to voluble exclamations in Italian and preparing elaborate meals with nowhere to sit and nothing to eat off of but lots to drink. They look the ideal fun couple. Is Frances – who seems straight out of a novel by Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner — finally going to ‘get a life’ after all?
Then things start turning darker. Under the floorboards of Frances’s attic bathroom is a small telescope set as a spy glass to peer into the bathroom below that Cara and Peter share. Cara isn’t an Italian at all; she’s actually Irish and grew up in a smaller Ascendancy rattled ruin and the seeming fun-couple’s relationship reveals deep fissures. Peter is actually married to someone else whom he is still supporting. Cara is also a total fantasist with a lost baby in her past for which she gives utterly bizarre accounts. Then they discover ‘The Museum’ – the hiding place from the army for all the family valuables and jewellery. They have no key. To get in Peter has to take a sledgehammer to the door. Suddenly the three of them have furniture, tables and chairs and plates to eat off of. And being an antiques dealer, Peter knows how to turn hot artefacts into cold cash. What does Frances do? Does she write her employer and tell him about the treasure trove’s being looted? Of course she responds as I would have done (at least when I was younger) …
At this point I’d best leave the remainder of the story for the reader to discover. For me it was really affecting and disturbing, and yet like the best stories, perfectly appropriate and in character. It is fascinating how well Claire Fuller can use physical detail to create atmosphere, like the cabin in Our Endless Numbered Days and the huge piles of annotated books in Swimming Lessons. Here Frances’ botanical sampling knife, the telescope spy glass, the bridge covered with weeds, the memento-mori ring Cara adopts as a replacement wedding band, the cigarette case Peter gives Frances, the orange tree trapped in the glasshouse (which is also the name for a military prison) with its inedible fruit that gives the book a title, and the sledgehammer all play a sinister symbolic role in the tale. And the twists were so nicely prepared that they scarcely felt like twists and seemed to come just as they look inevitable.
Though Bitter Orange is definitely a five star, some nasty loose ends bother me and as the story runs on two tracks, past and present, to finality, I’ll always wonder about them. Why was the little telescope spyglass planted in the floor? Who was the father of Cara’s baby? How could Victor the priest, who’s at least ten years older than Frances, have officiated at her deathbed and burial? Was the bridge in the Palladian style and what became of it? Tho’ Bitter Orange is excellent, it is not quite the book I still await from Claire Fuller. That is the sequel to Our Endless Numbered Days, where we encounter Peggy again, as an adult.