A hut in the forest, surrounded by greenery, with a bubbling brook nearby - it's the stuff of idyllic dreams or fairytales. Only in Claire Fuller's Our Endless Numbered Days it becomes the stuff of nightmares.
In 1975 eight-year-old Peggy lives at home with her dad James, a survivalist, and her mum, Ute, a German concert pianist. In 1985 Peggy is back home with her mum, after 10 years spent living in the forest with James, who told her that everyone in the world had died, and that the two were the only ones alive.
Our Endless Numbered Days drifts between 1985 and Peggy's years spent in the forest in a kind of dream-like manner. Dreams, nightmares, fiction and fantasies play a big part in Our Endless Numbered Days - Peggy refers to The Railway Children a number of times, as though it's a factual reference point, she chooses to remember her time in the forest as though she was in a dream, and while there her nickname was Punzel, after the fairytale princess Rapunzel (and there's a hint of Hansel and Gretel about it all). Only if she had been able to let down her hair, there would have been no one around to rescue Peggy.
Instead, Peggy has to rescue herself, both from her time in the forest and from her present, where only she and she alone can help herself come to terms with what she's been through. We see Peggy grow from a child into an adult during her time in the forest, but it's an adulthood that is out of sync with how the real world works. Her only adult role model and influence for 10 years is her father, who is unstable and more of a child than Peggy. James lives in a fantasy world, his survivalist tendencies mask a need to be in control and to have everything his own way, and when that doesn't happen he throws disproportionately large temper tantrums - a bit like a toddler. It's no wonder that Peggy finds the only way she can grow up is to pretend that her doll Phyllis is a real child, and project her feelings, thoughts and fears onto her instead of experiencing them for herself.
Both Peggy and James also project their feelings and themselves onto other things and people, primarily the forest and the hut they live in, Die Hutte. They rely on the forest to keep them alive, give them shelter, entertain them, and it works for a while. Until it doesn't. And when they can't rely on the forest, and each other, that's when things go badly.
Our Endless Numbered Days is so, so dark, but it was only as I approached the end that I realised just how dark the book is. That sounds a bit silly, but the way Fuller writes, the humour she injects throughout and the small idyllic pictures she creates, almost blinded me at times to what was going on under the surface - the writing style almost reminds me of original fairytales, where princesses didn't live happily ever after. And every time I remembered or realised what was happening under the surface, I was shocked all over again, until that last big shock really tore me apart. This isn't a book for the weak hearted - there's very little redemption here, and you'll need to be strong, but it is a book I loved reading and thinking about.
*Our Endless Numbered Days is out in the UK on February 26, 2015.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Fig Tree. This did not affect my review.