Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Highgate London, November 1985

EndlessPeggy Hillcoat is 17 years old and has been back in her family for 2 months now, everything is familiar and strange at the same time. Her father is no longer there, but in his place is an 8-year-old brother Oskar, she hadn’t known of until her return. He is the same age now that she was when she and her father disappeared, for nine years, without trace.

Claire Fuller’s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days is the story of Peggy, narrated looking back from the present, when she has returned, slowly revealing the events that occurred that summer when her mother travelled to her native Germany and her father decided to take her out of school early, so they could camp out in the back yard, applying his obsessively learned survivalist skills, as if in preparation for the great Armageddon.

“When my father invited members of the North London Retreaters to our house for meetings, I was allowed to open the front door and show the half-dozen hairy and earnest men into Ute’s sitting room. I liked it when our house was full of people and conversation, and until I was sent up to bed, I lingered, trying to follow their discussions of the statistical chances, causes and outcomes of a thing they called ‘bloody Armageddon’.”

Peggy’s mother Ute was a young concert pianist and at 25-years-old, while on a tour of England, met her father, a stand-in page-turner eight years her junior.

Throughout the story and as witnessed in the quote above, there is a level of perceived inferiority surrounding the father, he is at pains to fulfil his ambition, even if it is only to complete the fallout shelter in the basement, a job he completes on the same day Peggy returns from school to learn that her mother had gone on a concert tour of Germany without saying goodbye or telling her.

The chapters unfold and we witness Peggy happily camping out in their backyard, which backs onto the leafy Highgate cemetery, with her father, learning survivalist skills and it almost feels like a natural extension of their fun that they will put their learnings into practice by packing items written on the endless lists they’ve been creating to depart on a journey into a larger version of the backyard.  But we embark with hindsight, already knowing this is a forbidden trip, one that required them to take their passports, traverse a river and seek out that cabin in the woods Peggy’s father had been telling her about for a long time ‘die Hütte’.

It is because we are forewarned that nine years have passed, that we read of the camping trip with mild horror, wondering how they are going to survive and what might have occurred during this eternity of days that will follow. Especially when her father tells her that they are the only survivors, that the world really has ended. There is no going back.

“Each morning since we had arrived, my father had cut notches in die Hütte’s door frame, but when he got to sixteen he decided to stop.

‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered out days are, how much closer to death we are 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.’”

highgate-cemetery-grave

Highgate Cemetery

Ironically, though far from civilised society, Peggy learns the one thing her mother never passed on to her, how to play the piano. One of a number of obsessions that her father embarks upon, he fabricates a piano out of wood after Peggy who he has renamed Punzel expresses disappointment that the cabin doesn’t possess a piano as he had promised. He has brought the sheet music for ‘La Campanella’ with him, which she will learn by heart on an instrument incapable of making a sound.

‘Its going to take a lot of practice, Punzel. Are you sure about this?’

I knew it was a warning he thought he ought to give, rather than a challenge he wanted me to back down from. There was an enthusiasm bubbling inside him, like he hadn’t had since he started work on the fallout shelter. My father always needed  to have a project.

As the days pass, we become aware of the deterioration in stability of the father and the importance of every ritual to ensure their survival. Right from the beginning we read with a base layer of tension, as if waiting for something bad to happen, wondering what is going to tip the balance, who is going to survive and what the repercussions of these endless days will be.

Fuller keeps us on tenterhooks right until the end, even though Peggy has returned home on the very first page, right from that first page, when she cuts a picture of her father’s head out of a photo and hides it in her underclothing, we sense something not quite right. And by the end we too will be going out of our mind needing to know why.

Our Endless Numbered Days is an extraordinary debut and like Franz Liszt’s piece of classical music La Campanella, it draws us in, lulls us into its rhythm and carries us up as it builds to a crescendo, before crashing us down to experience its wild, unruly finale.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

30 thoughts on “Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

  1. You’ve written this in such a way that before I’d got to the end of your review I wanted to know why! I’m hooked already – I’ll have to get this and find out for myself!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Why thank you Col, that’s high praise indeed and the kind of comment that makes me go back and reread the review from another perspective than the usual slightly self-critical one🙂

      I’m intrigued by how many literary books touch on Highgate cemetery, it looks like a place that could tell untold stories in itself.

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  2. Wonderful review, Claire. I loved the last sentence from your review – “it draws us in, lulls us into its rhythm and carries us up as it builds to a crescendo, before crashing us down to experience its wild, unruly finale” – so beautiful! I so want to find out what happened in the secluded place where Peggy and her father decide to camp and what happened to her mother and whether she ever came back. Thanks for this wonderful review, Claire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Vishy, it was very intriguing to have so many references to this piece of music all the way through and like Peggy, not to hear it. And now that I can listen to it, it is indeed like a metaphor for the entire script in the way that the author provides us with enough knowledge to put us slightly on edge. I really wished the book was accompanied by music in parts!

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  3. I love that you compared the book to the piano piece that was such a huge part of Peggy’s life in the forest! And, included the piece, itself. I just listened to it, and it is very fitting, isn’t it?

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    • It is indeed Naomi, I did wonder what that piece was going to be like, it builds up to become so intriguing and by the end we really want to hear it ourselves, especially when she returns home. It would be fascinating to see it in film with sound I am sure. Watch this space I guess!

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    • It feels like one of those debuts everyone will be talking about, I read an interview about how she’d heard a similar story in the Netherlands I think it was about a boy turning up saying he’d been in the forest for some time against his will with his father, that story turned out to be a fabrication, but it got Fuller thinking about the possibility and thus this story was born. And what a story, it reads with such authenticity, while being incredible at the same time.

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  4. You know Claire, Yundi Li is one of my fave pianists and ‘La Campanella’ one of my fave pieces. So, thanks so much for this video clip. And guess what, Yundi Li playing ‘La Campanella’ is the ring tone on my cell phone. Glad to see this piece is incorporated into the story. Thanks for a beautiful review!

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    • That’s an incredible coincidence Arti! I was very intrigued to listen to the music once I finished reading and I found the whole story and significance of the piano throughout, quite an accomplished feat. I hope you enjoy the story, it will be interesting to see if it comes out as a film in the future, I can quite imagine it.

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  5. I hadn’t really thought about how the movement of music in La Campanella mirrors the way the novel is written but you are right. And it is such a thrilling read even though we know she makes it out of die Hütte. Her journey and what happens in the cabin is so gripping. This is such a beautiful book and Peggy such a strong character.

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    • Yes, I’ve thought a lot about how normal it might have seemed without the forewarning, of course the Dad was eccentric, but his daughter was part of him and loved their outdoor camping, which was so much easier to get away with when the mother wasn’t around. BUt that piano note is like a ticking alarm of warning, reminding us not to forget that something is not quite right and we are constantly reminded of it.

      The significance of the music didn’t really occur to me until the end either when I could think back over the arc of the story and listen to the music, I so wanted to hear it by the end, just imagine seeing it on film when she can finally play it, that doesn’t really come across as strongly as it might it were played for real. I feel sure this will end up on screen. Peggy is quite a complex and somewhat ambiguous character , I always felt we shouldn’t underestimate her.

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  6. Ok I just don’t get the ending! There’s no buy in for me! A young girl raised in the woods could not detail that intimate scene. No way, she wouldn’t have that type of knowledge. I am on Peggy’s side. I believe her. Do you think I’m crazy?

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    • I think by the end we can’t trust anyone or much that is shared, we have entered into the reader’s imagination, I could not categorically say what has actually happened at the end, the author presents what Peggy says she is witnessing, and there is certainly proof of certain things happening, but I don’t think her voice or ability to recount what is happening changes, but her grasp of reality has shifted.

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