Having received a copy of this from Netgalley, I read this with no preconceptions at all, which was a good thing because by the time I had finished it, it seemed as though there were reviews everywhere. Like Emma Donaghue’s Room, Our Endless Numbered Days presents a claustrophobic and deeply unsettling vision of a family adventure gone terribly awry. The action switches between 1976, when eight year-old Peggy Hillcoat listens to The Railway Children on her gramophone and hears her mother playing the grand piano, sometimes she goes camping with her survivalist father. He has been stockpiling supplies ahead of the expected apocalypse and one day, while her concert pianist mother is on tour, he takes her away from London, away from England and deep into a remote European forest where they set up home in a hut. After a storm, her father tells her that the apocalypse has occurred and that they are the only survivors. The other timeline flashes forward to 1985, when Peggy is at last able to return home. The events that join up the two are related in prose that is both lyrical and intense. Both beguiling and disturbing, the story of what has befallen Peggy is one that carries on up until the very last line.
As with most novels narrated by children, the reader has a greater awareness of what is going on than the protagonist. The seventeen year-old Peggy looks at an old photo of her father and observes that he does not look like a liar, but to the reader, James seems off-kilter from the very beginning. We hear the story of how he met Ute, Peggy’s mother, when she was a twenty-five year-old prodigy and he was only seventeen, pushed onstage at the last minute to turn her pages. Flash forward eight years and he is still only is his twenties and his immaturity masks deeper cracks in his psyche. To the rest of his ‘Retreaters’ group, he seems slightly extreme but the survivalism is viewed as little more than a hobby. It is his friend Oliver Hannington who seems to be the cause of all the friction between him and Ute, Peggy’s mother and it is from Hannington that the idea of ‘Die Hütte’ is first suggested, an idealised place to live in when the rest of the world is gone. Far above Peggy’s eight year-old understanding, a drama is being played out between Oliver, Ute and James and it is this which is the catalyst for James’ departure with Peggy in tow.
The book’s title refers to the moment when James chooses to stop marking the time they have been away – time stops for Peggy and she is instantly homesick for the normality. There is a total lack of practicality to his plan for their new lives, such as the early episode when James spends weeks building Peggy a piano from pebbles and sticks, a contraption which is silent but which allows her to learn the only piece of sheet music they have with them, la Campanella – coincidentally (or rather not so) the piece of music Ute was playing when she met James for the first time. All of this leads to James forgetting to lay in provisions for winter in time so that the two of them nearly die of malnutrition – not since Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter has starvation been quite so convincingly evoked.
Our Endless Numbered Days is like an inverted fairy-tale; Peggy’s father calls her ‘Punzel’ rather than Peggy and truly she is a damsel trapped by a terrible ogre. Peggy’s pleasant life in her pretty home, her quotations from The Railway Children, all of this recalls a normality and a set of values which have been ripped from her. In the early years of life in ‘Die Hütte’, Peggy’s doll Phyllis is the means by which she vocalises her feelings – while Peggy never weeps for her mother after James tells her that Ute has died, Phyllis does and Peggy frequently quotes her doll’s opinions without referring to her own. The biggest problem that the book suffers from is how it presents the passage of time. It is very hard to present the endless numbered days to a reader – Peggy has come unstuck in time but it is difficult to present her transition from child to adolescent convincingly.
Yet still, this feels like a minor criticism in a book that is otherwise spell-binding in how it presents the harrowing life that Peggy’s father has inflicted upon her. Peggy hunts across the mountain, catches squirrels, refuses to learn to swim after a terrifying near-drowning – the landscape which Fuller paints with her words is stunning. Even more bewitching is the psychological drama which is playing out between Peggy and her father as the reader comes to realise how their dynamic has shifted and become skewed over time. My stomach took a definite lurch as it became clear what was happening and then further swoops of horror as further twists unfurled. I was reminded of Gillespie and I in the way in which Our Endless Numbered Days uses a narration that is lying even to itself. This was one of those rare novels which sent me running straight to an Internet forum to compare notes with other people – its ending is ambiguous but with Peggy back in the fierce embrace of her mother, I could only hope that she would finally find the healing she so needed and that her happy ending could still be found but most of all that her days might no longer seem endless.
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on December 31st 2015
Genres: 20th Century, Family Life, Fiction, General, Horror, Literary, Survival, Suspense
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