1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother's grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.
Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.
Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival. And a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.
This was our July Book Group choice. Claire Fuller very kindly sent us some fantastic questions for us to think about when we met up to discuss the book. Here is our discussion - feel free to add a comment at the end of this post if there is anything you'd like to add or share!
What do you think of the parenting in the book? Do you think parenting in 1976 was different to how we expect it to be done now? And how much does the type of parenting Peggy receives affect her behaviour?
This question led to an interesting chat about the world in 1976 - particularly as a lot of us in the group were born around this time (*cough*) so would ourselves have been "parented" under the same sort of cultural influences and theories common to James and Ute. We know it was a time before "helicopter parenting"! The same threats might have existed but they were not so prevalent or high profile as nowadays. In 1976, factors like no internet, no mobiles, no child protection policies (not to the degree they exist today anyway) no safeguarding, less technology etc would affect police procedure and therefore trying to "find" Peggy when Ute reports her to be missing would have been made much more difficult. We also wondered about the position of Ute in the 70s..... a few of us remember our mothers not having their own passport and all of us being on our fathers which implied a more chauvinistic and sexist attitude towards women and their "right" to their children - particularly if they've had an affair.....
The parenting Peggy has received has clearly had a massive effect on her. Although is it the parenting she's received for the first 9 years of her life, or the trauma of what she endures in the forest that has really affected her?
Who is the most culpable of the adults in the novel and why?
Tricky! Slightly divided opinion and a few people swapping sides during the conversation!
The father? But if he was mentally ill can he held totally responsible? How far can his mental issues excuse, justify, explain his behaviour?
The mother? She abandoned them when she knew James was showing plenty of signs of unstable behaviour....
Conclusion? All of them!
Many lies are told in the novel. Do you think there are ever any good reasons for telling lies?
To protect your children obviously.....But then isn't that what James thinks he is doing?
But his lies are so monumental there is a difference - lies starting off as a way of shielding her are so far fetched and so colossal they can't really be justified.....Also Peggy would never expect her father to lie to her, so is he taking advantage of her trust? Then it's manipulation rather than a lie?
Peggy lies to herself - is that alright?
Generally we agreed it was - she lies to protect herself, to give herself a way to cope, to create some points of reference to understand things, to create a world where someone might save her.
But then lies become confused with reality, what is true and what is told to be true blur into a confusion where neither James nor Peggy are able to admit the truth facing them.
Conversely, perhaps Ute could have told a lie when phoning James from her tour.....Why did she choose to tell him about her pregnancy on the phone, miles away from her daughter?
This phone call generated a long discussion amongst us about who was running away from whom, who knew what when they ran away and why did they need to run away? What was the truth behind Ute's departure and what is the real reason James finally decided to take Peggy away? Spite? Revenge? Thoughtlessness? Inevitability?
Why do these questions keep leading to more questions? Gosh Claire Fuller, I don't think any of us appreciated quite how much you'd been playing with us with your deceptively complex novel!
Well, here's one we answered decisively in less than one minute!
How well do you think you'd survive in the wild with only an axe and a knife?
Um, not long!
"Given how I go on holiday and how much I pack, I do not think I would survive very well!" commented one person. "I mean, I'd have to have face cream on that list for a start!"
Some might call Peggy an unreliable narrator. At what point did you question the authenticity of her story if indeed you did?
At no point did any of us question her unreliability! We didn't want to! And if you had, the absolutely breathtaking denouement and impact of the final shocks and twists would have been lost.
But now, looking back at the book, we spent a lot of time talking about her unreliability and how much of any of what she told us we could believe. There was much pensive staring into the middle distance as we mused on this ....!
Similarly we hadn't really spotted the clues about the twists at the end until Claire posed the question "With hindsight what clues were there that these were coming?" And then we did use our hindsight and realised there were some clever, subtle hints in some of the description.
One member of the group also raised the idea that Reuben's boots were more symbolic - that they could have been Reubens or James'.....I think there is an A Level essay in there somewhere about Peggy's creation of Reuben as a way to allow herself to process what she is experiencing given that she has no other points of reference or tools to help her deal with such an inappropriate relationship with her father. Considering it a little more fully made us all think about the potential symbolism and mirroring within the character of Reuben.
What role did you think music played in the novel?
This is a good question! We decided it's clearly escapism for Peggy. It's a link to her mother - a connection - an attempt to hold on to a connection or life line even! It's also controlling. James controls Peggy with her "practise". Ute is controlled by her passion for music - for her it is almost all consuming, and also something she is fiercely protective over. It is something for her and her alone. There is also a reference to using music to "let it all out" - music as a way of healing yourself, expressing yourself, releasing yourself and getting lost (or escaping) into another world which you can control and make sense of. Clever!!
One member of the group felt a quote about always starting in the middle of a piece of music was particularly resonant and had adopted it with her own children. If you always start at the beginning then the opening will always be perfect, but you will always get stuck half way through when it gets tricky - and you'll never master that bit, just give up..... Metaphorical and symbolic again? Oh, Claire Fuller, you seem to have done it again with your unassuming profundity!
The final question really intrigued us - absolutely brilliant question!!
There is a strong theme of European Fairy Tales throughout the book from the setting in the forest to Peggy's change of name. There are at least 6 others touched on - how many did you spot?
- Rapunzel - obvs,
- Hansel and Gretel
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Snow White
- Sleeping Beauty (awakened by Reuben?)
- Rumplestilskin (identity, names and stealing a baby)
One thing we noticed as we complied our list was the significance of the forest in fairy tales. Also most of the above feature a wicked step mother or witch - is this implying something about Ute?
And so many stories have axes and chopping up people or animals......
But what we'd really like to know is were we right? Claire, can you tell us which the stories are? We are desperate to find out!
Finally one more question - but this time, one we'd love to put to Claire!
Were you involved in the cover design at all? We noticed that the cover of the book is different for each country in which it is published. Why is this? Did you have a favourite edition?
(There were several votes for Taiwain although a discussion on whether it was right to have an actual picture of the hut on it was right or not....!)
Thank you Claire, so so so much! We've had a great time discussing your book! Each one of us felt we had seen so much more in it than we first thought.
We had all given it 4/5 star ratings on Goodreads before we met, so the book had always been thoroughly enjoyed but I think these questions really illustrated how captivating, clever and powerful the writing really is. Reviews of this novel are littered with the words "breathtaking" and "beautiful". It certainly is that. I would add compelling and heartbreaking. Massive thumbs up from this book group! Thank you so much for the questions!
We can not wait for your next novel!
For more information about Claire, follow her on Twitter @ClaireFuller2 or Facebook ClaireFullerWriter or check out her website - clairefuller.co.uk
There is a picture of how Claire imagined the Hutte on the website but we actually decided not to look at it as we all had very clear pictures in our own heads which we wanted to hold on to! But it would certainly be interesting to compare our versions! Dare you look?!
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Archive post - My Review of "Our Endless Numbered Days"
The book starts in 1976 when Peggy is eight years old. She is told by her father that the rest of the world has disappeared and they set off deep into the woods to a hidden shack where Peggy lives with her father for the next nine years, surviving in the wild with only the barest of rations that the forest can provide. The narrative then shifts to 1985 and Peggy's mysterious re-emergence to the modern world and a reunion with her mother. The novel is about trying to find out the truth about her time in the forest and what happened to lead up to her return.
I was intrigued by the concept (as well as the attractive book cover!). It's an imaginative premise; a parent driven to kidnap their own child and retreat into the wilderness, delusional about politics and the end of the world, fanatical about survival and planning for the apocalypse. And then Peggy's realisation that her father has lied to her for so many years - her family are not dead, they are alive, and have always been. Fuller presents all this with great descriptive and evocative writing. Her portrayal of Penny's relationships with both her parents is explored with realism and poignancy.
Fuller's writing is vivid - full of atmosphere and imagery in which you become fully captivated. The picture of Peggy "playing a silent piano" with wooden keys on the table as her only toy is powerful and resonants long after you've finished the book. It is very visual and easy to conjure in your own mind. In a way, you become as immersed in the secluded world as the two characters. Fuller also touches on issues like nature v nurture when she shows how Peggy copes with her father's behaviour in a world where she has no wider experience on which to draw.
The reader knows Peggy returns to the real world from the outset but don't let this put you off. There is still a dramatic climax and a surprise ending which will leave you deep in thought.
I would highly recommend it. I'm pleased to see it sitting amongst the bestsellers in the book shops at the moment and I hope you will be tempted to pick it up - don't let it languish on your "to read" pile for as long as I did!