“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 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 twentieth of August, 1976. —From Our Endless Numbered Days
Anansi never disappoints. This Christmas, I received a package from them with the ARC of Claire Fuller‘s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days (due out in March and present on at least eight “most anticipated books” lists) plus two candles, a tin of chicken, matches, a ball of twine, batteries, and survivalist lists of what to pack for a trip into “the interior.”
They’ve read the book. They must know it’s a winner. But did they know just how appropriate their package would be? Did they know that after I finished the book, when my husband, dog, and I went to the woods for our walk a couple of hours later, I would feel convinced that I needed to bring the candles, matches, and a blanket in case something happened? We tramped through the forest and I could not shake off the feeling that I was still in the novel. I stumbled through the snow behind my husband, breathlessly, seemingly endlessly, describing the story to him.
Our Endless Numbered Days is told to us by Peggy, who is 18. When she is eight, she is taken from her home by her survivalist (or, Retreatist) father, from London to a remote European forest. At first she thinks they’re on a short trip to “die Hütte” [the cottage]—a camping trip, as they’d done in their backyard while her mother was off giving piano concerts in another country. But her father wishes to avoid people on their trek, and when they finally arrive at the small, hidden, ill-equipped, ramshackle cabin, he tells her that the rest of the world has ended, and everyone else is dead, and it is not safe to venture beyond the borders he sets. And she, having little concept of her father’s designs, believes it all.
For nine years, Peggy and her father live off the land, almost starving, then adapting but only just surviving. The events that transpire are utterly engrossing. But increasingly Peggy’s father shows alarming signs of deterioration and mental illness, and we wonder how this could possibly all end well.
The story alternates between the time of these nine years and the present, which in this book is 1985, when Peggy has returned home and discovered the world is not ended, after all. We know, then, early on that she survives the ordeal, but breathtaking tension remains as she relates her story, even as we deduce and suspect (I did not find this spoiled anything), and then confirm, with horror, the reality and disturbing effects of what transpired.
I’m telling you right now, this is the best book I’ve read in ages. I cannot remember the last time I spoke aloud at a book, with volume, or if there has ever been a time when, no matter how great the book was, I actually told someone they needed to leave me alone till I finished. I’ve wanted to, of course.
Yesterday, reading near the end, I said aloud, “Oh God, oh my God…” and my husband said, “What, what? Did you forget something important?” And I just shook my head, my eyes wide, my hand over my mouth. “Oh God,” I said, muffled. And he said, “Ohh, is one of your book characters having difficulties?” Which is from The Simpsons and made me kind of laugh, but I was unable to remove my hand from my mouth. I was between worlds; I felt—and this will sound like hyperbole—like I’d been punched. No, not the hurt, but the recovery, from the surprise and holy-shitness of it (yes, I’ve been punched before).
And then, a few minutes later, I said, “No. NO. No, no, no, no, noooo…” I knew, I had suspected, but to hear a character come to her own realization, for me to have my suspicions confirmed, for the realizations to dawn on me slowly as the book progressed, horrifyingly so…it was all very intense. And when my husband started talking to me about his beer brewing process, which he’s very excited about and which is his own passion, I squirmed and I held my breath and I smiled and I told myself, HE is more important than your book…but then I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I said, showing him, “I just have one and a half pages left,” and he said, “Oh, okay—” thinking I meant I would shower and get ready to go out after those pages, and I blurted, “NO, please. I mean, I have to read these now and then you can talk to me. I’m sorry, I-I just need to finish, I’m in the story…” And, bless him, he put up his hands and backed away slowly.
I didn’t close the book for a few minutes after I’d finished. I sat processing. I thought of so many things at once. Is it typical that once you finish a book like this you immediately start looking for flaws? You review the story and the events over and over and look for holes or things you can object to. Every time I came up with something, Fuller had it covered (read: I got this) by something else. I thought of objections others might have with regard to the story, but I always had something solid to counter them with.
All day yesterday, I thought about the book. I had been so there, alongside Peggy—or as her, I don’t really know. The atmosphere, the setting, the details…everything was so palpable that it feels like memory.
“It feels like a big risk,” she said. “The book will come out but I have no idea how well it will sell. It is amazing and I can’t quite believe it. It is still rare for this to happen to new authors. It’s amazing and it must mean that they think the book is sellable—they are a business at the end of the day. If the book doesn’t sell I probably have two or three years and then I might have to go out and get a job. We have decided it is worth taking the risk.” [source: Hampshire Chronicle]
Duh. Totally worth it. I’m already slavering over her as-yet-unborn second novel and can’t wait to meet her someday, and I am not alone. It’s tough to believe OEND is a debut novel. I admired the prose—which Kirkus Review called “translucent”—sentences like, “The forest smelled heavy and dirty and sorry for itself”—though, taken out of context, perhaps things lose a bit of their lustre. But the rhythm of her writing, the structure and organization of the story, the way important things are revealed throughout but not too much, not too tellingly, her power to evoke surroundings that are so real you are transported, and the way Fuller was able to reach deep into the human condition and translate things so that we relate, even not having experienced what Peggy does first-hand—all of this is expertly done. This book is going to be big, okay. Award-winning. Or I’ll eat my survivalist candles (the dog ate the canned chicken.)
That I could not pick up another book to read yesterday and haven’t been able to so far today is testament to Fuller’s power as a storyteller. Not only do I feel I haven’t read something as effective as this novel in ages, but I also feel it will take a little while for me to believe I can read something as good next.