‘This morning I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.’ So begins Claire Fuller’s breathtaking debut Our Endless Numbered Days. Eight-year-old Peggy Hellcoat spends a summer living in the garden with her survivalist father, James, while her mother, Ute, is on tour as a concert pianist in Europe. In their overgrown English garden Peggy’s father becomes more and more extreme in what at first seems like a fun way to pass the time, but what becomes clear is a training camp ahead of the main event. Before Ute returns home, James takes Peggy and their prepared supplies to a remote European forest, where they can live self-sufficiently, hidden and safe from potential disaster.
‘What’s a Hütte?’ I asked.
‘A magical, secret place in the forest,’ my father said with a catch in his voice. ‘Our very own little cabin, with wooden walls, and wooden floors, and wooden shutters at the windows.’ His voice was deep and smooth; it lulled me. ‘Outside, we can pick sweet berries all year round; chanterelles spread like yellow rugs under the trees; and in the bottom of a valley a Fluss overflows with silvery fish, so when we’re hungry and need supper, we can just dip our hands in and pull three out.’
But not long after their arrival, just as Peggy begins to grow restless, there’s a huge storm and her father tells her ‘the rest of the world has gone.’ What follows is a dystopian tale of survival against nature, but also against a claustrophobic, insular world built by a man out of control. The novel switches between the present day, where Peggy has returned to London after not being seen for nine years, and that first fateful summer, pulling closer and closer in time as we begin to discover that life was not as simple as Peggy’s father promised. Soon after arriving James’ manic tendencies begin to have real ramifications for Peggy, who has been nick-named Rapunzel in order to create a character for his child in this adventure.
‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless.’
With my father’s final notch, time stopped for us on the 20th August 1976.
But dates do have significance. After spending too much of their summer building a toy piano for Peggy to play with, James finds himself in the depths of autumn, without having gathered enough food or wood for the winter, and with a sinking feeling ‘that music could not sustain us’. It’s here that things begin to deteriorate rapidly for both James and Peggy.
My father looked up at me, his face white and drawn. ‘It’s not enough,’ he said. Until that winter I had always thought my father had a solution for everything, that he had all the answers, but I learned soon enough that I was wrong.
I don’t want to give away any more story than that — the last one-hundred pages in particular are filled with breathtaking, powerful and evocative prose that deserve to be read fresh. But throughout the novel there is another side of the story too, those who were left behind — Ute and Peggy’s little brother (who she didn’t know she had), Oskar. It allows Fuller to examine family dynamics in really interesting ways — the relationship between father and daughter, and mother and son. Of grief and the loss of a child, and what that means for not just for a mother, but also for siblings. It also allows us to contrast a ‘normal’ childhood with Peggy’s trauma, a reminder of how free a child should be to play, to tease their parents, to enjoy themselves.
Fuller masterfully draws tension from the first sentence and maintains it throughout the novel. Our Endless Numbered Days reads as a thriller and is without a doubt the scariest book I have read this year. Not in a blood-and-guts horror kind of way, but as a deep, dark psychological thriller. If, like me, you’re scared witless by watching the Netflix series The Fall but still keep watching, that’s how I felt about this book. It gave me nightmares, haunting me whilst both awake and asleep, yet when the book was finished I felt a sharp pang of loss. Peggy got under my skin, and while some of this was my own experience, I don’t want to underestimate Fuller’s writing. This is an intelligent, thoughtful novel which is highly visceral and atmospheric. It’s the perfect book to spend a cold afternoon with, because you won’t want to put it down, and you’ll want the safety of a warm blanket while reading it.
As the weather dramatically starts to cool in Berlin, the evocative portrait of the German forest in Our Endless Numbered Days felt closer than ever. But what I wasn’t expecting from this novel were the beautiful snapshots of German language and culture which Peggy’s German mother Ute brings to the story. When Ute pulls her Apfelkuchen from the oven, it brought back such vivid memories of my own Mum making German Apple Cake when we were kids. The rich, buttery tea cake topped with cinnamon and sugar was always one of my favourite treats, either warm with cream or cold with ice cream. Being in Germany has made me realise the number of little snippets of German culture my Mum brought to our household. Mum learnt German at school and as anyone who’s learnt another language soon realises, once you learn about a language, you inherently learn a lot about its’ culture. So on a cool autumn afternoon in Berlin, with the oven on to warm the house and apples bought from the market at the very beginning of the season, I made this Martha Stewart version of German Apple Cake.
Now, if you look at the picture in the recipe and then you look at mine, you’ll realise something (or many things) obviously went terribly wrong. Because I have a terrible attention span, baking and I are not always compatible. So here I used a different sized tin, different sugar and a different flour in an unpredictable oven and the cake rose to heady heights in the oven, before sinking spectacularly. The apples which were carefully placed in a pattern on top of the cake all sank to the bottom. But who cares, it was still incredibly delicious. Using raw sugar instead of caster sugar gave the cake deep, caramel notes which paired beautifully with the extra cinnamon I also put in (1 teaspoon in the batter as well as that coating the apples). The apples cooked perfectly, still holding together but falling apart in the mouth, and the rich, buttery crumb of the cake was exactly as I remembered from my childhood. At a time where I wanted a little reminder of home, a little smell of childhood in my own kitchen on the other side of the world, this cake, despite all my failures, was like having my Mum here with me, drinking tea and eating cake, talking about books and family and life. It was everything Peggy didn’t have, and everything I’m grateful for.
Our Endless Numbered Days was among the 56 nominees of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award, a program which ‘celebrates every debut novel, novella and short story collection featured in (the festival’s) programme - including some for young adults and first English translations’. The list features writers of all ages, from a number of countries and regions, and with an impressive 33 titles by written by women. While I’ve only read two novels on this list (Sara Novic’s stunning Girl at War was also featured), they are among my picks of the year. I have three other listed books sitting on my current to-read list and would happily keep making my way through this list for the rest of the year. You can see the full 56 nominated books here, and I look forward to seeing the winner of the audience’s favourite book announced on Friday the 16th of October.