Reading Claire Fuller's "Our Endless Numbered Days," I find it hard not to wonder whether, horribly, there actually might be a daughter and father like Peggy and James Hillcoat living hidden, out in some woods, the daughter an unsuspecting kidnap victim of her mentally ill parent. Fuller, a British writer and sculptor, has crafted a novel that will be remembered long after the last page is finished. It's realistic, harrowing, immersive and poetic.
Peggy, the narrator of the story, is 8 when her father takes her on a camping trip to "die Hütte," a remote ramshackle cabin in a forest in Germany, "held in the mountain's embrace … a mountain range that spread as far the horizon." James is a survivalist; a member of the North London Retreaters. Like the others in the group, he has built a fallout shelter in his house and is preparing for the nuclear war he's sure is coming.
Many times before, while Peggy's mother, Ute, was touring as a concert pianist, James and Peggy camped in the back yard. But shortly after arriving in the woods, James tells Peggy that her mother is dead and the world destroyed from the raging storm they witnessed from the forest. They two are the only survivors. From this point on, they must live in the cabin, bathe in the river, grow and hunt food and rely only on each other.
Fuller's decision to let Peggy tell the story from two time periods — as a young woman living in London and during her nine years in the wilderness — makes it clear from the beginning that Peggy eventually escapes her increasingly deranged father. Yet knowing this outcome doesn't take away from the suspense. It adds to it.
Similar to the found boots and footprints that lead a teenage Peggy to discover the truth of her situation, Fuller's haunting descriptions and carefully paced plot lead the reader to discover a story not so much about wretchedness, but about resilience. However, as this coming-of-age story shows, truth can be relative (or, often, what's most convenient for those involved).
Fuller uses carefully placed clues to tantalizingly reveal the "truths" of Peggy's parents' relationship, as well as hers with each of them. Among those truths is a secret younger brother, whom Peggy meets after emerging from the woods malnourished, with rotted teeth and only half an ear.
"Our Endless Numbered Days" is an absorbing debut from a talented writer. Its ever-present sense of dread and compelling — but not always reliable — narrator make for a fast-paced, satisfying, page-turning read.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.