Its mass concealed underwater

Rush oh

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Virago, 4 February 2016

368 pages, e-book

*Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley

It was huge, unmistakably, though most of its mass was concealed underwater; grey-black in colour with a flat broad back.  Its ugly, misshapen head had the tumorous quality of an ancient anthill, or a tree stricken with abscesses.  These tumours, one of which sat comically atop its head like a bonnet, were whitish in quality similar to lichen, and within this lichen, odd dark stalagmites sprouted from which rivulets of water streamed.  Its vast coal-scuttle mouth curved downwards, and at one end of this a tiny eye, rheumy like an old man's, gazed up at them.  It was grotesque and prehistoric in appearance, yet not unfriendly. 

I was sold Shirley Barrett's Rush Oh! entirely on the strength of Eleanor's glowing review of it back in mid-January.  She made it sound so deliciously enchanting that I had to get my grubby hands on it at once. Huge armfuls of thank yous are due.  Without her enthusiasm I think it's quite likely that this delightful, unexpected, unassuming debut would have completely passed me by.  It's the sort of book that so easily gets lost amidst the over hyped debuts and the best sellers, pootling on it's own quiet way without ever getting the audience it deserves.  It's one of those grassroots word-of-mouth you-wouldn't-have-heard-unless books that blogging is made for.

Our narrator Mary Davidson is a painfully earnest and reserved young woman, the nineteen year old daughter of a fearless and renowned father.  George Davidson is the last in a long line of Davidsons' to hunt whales in Eden bay off the coast of Western Australia, raising his family amidst the stench of boiling blubber and the parched remains of his vanquished prey. 

...our garden must needs incorporate various vestiges of dead marine life.  The jaws of a large white pointer shark, in which the children like to pretend they were being eaten, formed an ornamental feature near the front gate, while the path leading up to the house was laid with the pulverised remains of whale vertebrae, creating an effect not unlike pebbles, although considerably sharper underfoot.  The towering rib cage of a ninety-foot blue whale sat amidst a winter display of jonquils; my father had had the men haul it closer to the house that he might contemplate its grandeur while enjoying his evening pipe. 

During the summer months he captains a ragged crew in two twenty foot rowboats and, with the help of a voracious pod of killer whales, chases down the unlucky blue and 'right' whales that wander into the bay from the open sea.  The oil and whalebone from a single animal can be worth upwards of £3000, a size-able payday for the sorts of luckless men who take to whaling.  Not every year is good for whaling though, and by the time Mary's story begins in the spring of 1908 the industrial sea-going rigs from Scandinavia have started to tip the odds against bay-locked crews in rowboats.  1907 was an appalling year and the Davidsons are almost on the breadline.  Having lost her mother some years earlier, it now falls to Mary to look after her siblings and the whalers, striving to be ever more inventive with maggoty pork, infested flour and the odd egg coaxed from rangy hens. 

Visitors are an uncommon surprise at the whaling station - creditors aside - and so the arrival of John Beck, an ex-Methodist minister looking for work, is a notable event.  It is made even more notable by his taciturn and mysterious air (where did he come from? What's his real story?) and the delight he takes in Mary.  She doesn't think a great deal of her charms - likening herself to 'a character in a musical comedy' and feeling thoroughly overshadowed by her sixteen year old sister Louisa - but he notices her in a way no other man has.  He banters with her; he talks to her like she's more than a cook and a skirt.  Beck is an unlikely whaler, with his smooth hands and his penchant for sermonising, but Davidson is desperate and any strong man who can pull an oar is fine by him.  There aren't many who want to join a crew of old salts, Aborigines, spotty teenagers and taciturn criminals, especially after a poor year.  John completes the band of twelve and moves in to the whaler's shacks at the bottom of Mary's garden.  So the scene is set for the drama of the season. 

Mary recounts the happenings of 1908 for us with long hindsight, from a late middle age far removed from Eden.  She has a chatty rhythm of remembering, flowing back and forward through time and taking detours for anecdotes and after-stories as they occur to her.  Her parents' back story, the fate of her two brothers and her latter day feelings weave in and out of the narrative.  At the same time she does justice to the meat of her story (no pun intended), crafting hectic action scenes and dramatic whale hunts aplenty.  At the heart of it all is John Beck, as she returns often to the tentative budding romance between them.  Each scene with him is clearly a precious memory, made soft with years of tender handling. 

She is instantly and intensely likeable, at once unassuming but bold. The book is characterised by her breezy, ironic humour, which is a grinning joy to read.  She is liberal with the sly jibes and asides:

Situated on the clifftop at South Head, Boyd Tower was built by Benjamin Boyd, one of the founding fathers of the Eden district.  He was a pastoralist, banker, adventurer and whale man who later went broke and took off in his schooner, only to be killed and eaten by natives somewhere in the Pacific.  Such is life.

It's impossible not to be swept up in the energy and giggle of it.  Yet lurking barely beneath the surface is a much more serious book, about loss and regret and betrayal.   The truth is that Mary's good heart was sorely tested back in 1908, and not just by John Beck.

The clue to this seriousness, I guess, is in the whaling itself.  A book with this much terrible violence could never be a light comedy.  While Barrett does a commendable job of paying due respect to both the whales themselves, which are beautifully described (for example, the quote at the head of this post), and the undoubted bravery of the whalers, the painful reality of the killing and dismembering is never far away.   Watching their father finish off a whale for the first time - the girls are usually back at home cooking the dinner - Mary and Louisa are horrified:

Drawing the weapon up high, he plunged the lance deep into the poor creature; oh, a hideous sight to see.  If only once had done it, but again and again he plunged his lance and each time the heartless crowd cheered as if watching a prize-fighter pummeling his opponent in a boxing tent.  The dreadful bellows grew more anguished, its last feeble spouts turning red.  'Stop it!' I heard someone cry, and turning around realised it was Louisa, tears streaming down her face. 'Stop it! Make him stop!'

Putting aside what we now know about the intelligence of whales, and the enormous harm that human beings have done to them and to their habitats, the immediate emotional punch of this scene is personal, familial. How do you reconcile the life you lead, made possible by this violence, with the love you feel for your father and your affection for your traditions?  Mary's reminiscences are shot through with a nostalgia for whaling which is at once abhorrent - as are all fond memories of unjust pasts - and entirely understandable.  It's quite a skill to combine two registers of emotion, but Rush Oh! manages by virtue of its lightness of stylistic touch. We get both Mary's sense of distaste and injustice, and her instinctive reaction to defend where you come from. 

Rush Oh! is notable for the way that it makes visible inequalities of all kinds, between humans, between humans and animals, even while Mary herself is unaware of her part in sustaining them.  Barrett is particularly sensitive to the Aboriginal characters in the book, who are at once barely there (Mary has as little interest in them as she does some of the other whalers) and strikingly present.  Their appearance on the periphery of Mary's vision reminds us how the narrator's perspective centres the story, and how different a whaling story we might have been told from the point of view of John Beck or George Davidson or any other person in Eden.  It's what Mary doesn't see that matters as much as what she does see.  You don't realise how layered your response to it all is until the aftermath. 

I had the great misfortune of reading the end of Rush Oh! on a packed train from London King's Cross to York late at night, when I was feeling cranky and underfed at the end of a long conference.  I was sat next to an infuriating teen who insisted on singing her audition piece for drama school ('I Feel Pretty' from West Side Story) in a squeaky falsetto for two whole hours, interrupted only by discussions with her equally infuriating mother about whether she should get a fake tan to look more Puerto Rican.  I kid you not.  Honestly, I was so close to throttling her with my headphone cord.  Of course, like my fellow passengers I was painfully English about the whole thing and sat in silent uncomplaining agony.  Mary's soothingly hopeful if not entirely happy ending is probably the only thing that kept me sane.  Thus: highly recommended this book, for both your sanity and your enjoyment. 


Getting Graphic: Rat Queens Vol 1

Rat Queens (Vol 1): Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch4

Image Comics, 2015

128 pages, paperback

*Borrowed from the library

Welcome back to my naive adventures into the graphic form, sponsored by your recommendations and the holdings of York libraries.  This installment sees my English prudery and tolerance for gory violence tested once again; who knew that I was so easily shocked and embarrassed?  One thing I'm learning fast is that reading about something in bare prose is a lot lot different from looking at technicolour pictures in comic form. The former I'm attuned to.  My imagination fades the mental pictures in or out as required for my equilibrium and I go along my merry way. The latter is a bombardment of whether-you-like-it-or-not.  It's challenging and disconcerting, but I like it.  I especially liked Rat Queens (in which opinion I am not alone), which is an unashamed orgy of delinquency, blood, guts and beer.  Committed by women, spilled by women, drunk by women.  (And some men, mostly called Dave.)  

Betty, Dee, Hannah and Violet are the Rat Queens, a multi-species band of mercenaries who have been tearing up the town of Palisade, getting in trouble with the law and having all kinds of a good time.  They have no intention whatsoever of being good girls.  You open this volume to a full page of Hannah, one eye swollen shut, nose bloody, arm bandaged and a satisfied smile on her face.  It's shocking and gutsy, because beat-up women are almost always victims. Unlike their male counterparts, they almost never carry their injuries as a badge of honour.  Not only that but Hannah's broken face is ugly, distorted; and so although she's also provocatively dressed in a short skirt and thigh high boots with carefully styled hair you just know that she doesn't give a shit what you or any one else thinks of her. 

Of course not everyone will stand for this kind of behaviour and the Rat Queens find themselves the target of a very expensive hit man.  He's also targeting other mercenary gangs - Peaches, the Four Daves, the Brother Ponies and the goth Obsidian Darkness - and it isn't clear whose behind it.  Is it the Mayor of Palisade, the merchant's guild or someone with a personal grudge?  While fighting off an assassin the Rat Queens accidentally on-purpose kill a troll - in a scene worthy of Peter Jackson's most over the top LotR treatment - adding a whole army of vengeful relatives to the long list of people they have pissed off. 

Amidst all this action we have plenty of opportunity to get to know Betty, Dee, Hannah and Violet.  The trust and loyalty of their friendship is up-front from the beginning, underpinned by their witty quickfire banter and willingness to stab anyone that threatens them.  Betty is the baby of the crew, able to get away with anything, sweet and irresistible as a button until you cross her.  She's in love with a woman who has left the mercenary life behind and finds her loyalty torn.  Hannah is the leader of the pack, game for anything and has a romantic past with the local Captain of the guard (who has a past of his own), while Dee  is the daughter of cultists who worship a flying squid and, when not killing things rather effectively, is painfully shy. Violet is a dwarf on the run from the traditions of her upbringing - she's even shaved off her beard - and isn't going to let anyone tell her what to do. 

The comic is unapologetic about diversity, about body positivity and about sex, but doesn't make a big deal of it.  It just gets on with letting women kick ass, make mistakes and save each others lives. What I liked most was the way it never coddles or mystifies the female body. It opens with that provocation of Hannah, and then continues to show women's bodies doing stuff without fetishising them.  There is a fantastically startling moment when Braga, a member of Peaches and a mountain of a woman is shot in the breast with an arrow.  If women's bodies are shielded, breasts are usually treated with particular care and protection.  Braga just screams "You put an arrow in my favourite boob, you fuckwit" and chops the perpetrator in half. 

I really can't wait for Volume 2. 


The garden of humanity is full of weeds

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Doubleday, 11 Feb 2016

352 pages, e-book

*Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

"Are you going to behave?" The man's voice echoed. "Are you going to behave?"

She made a noise. Could have been yes. Could have been no, but the blanket was pulled off her head and she gasped for air. 

An arched hall stretched before her, lit with lamps.  The thin hiss of gas.  Plants everywhere, and the smell of carbolic soap.  On the floor were tiles, reaching out in all directions, polished till they shone, some in the shape of flowers, but the flowers were black.  She knew then that this was no police station, and started shouting in fear, until a young woman in uniform appeared from the darkness and slapped her on the cheek. "There'll be none of that in here."

The summer of 1911 was infamously hot; hot and dry.  From July until September temperatures lingered around 33 degrees celsius.  It didn't rain for almost 60 days.  The Times started to run a 'Deaths by Heat' column and in August 5000 workers at the Victoria and Albert docks in London walked out because of the intolerable conditions.  There were food shortages, strikes, fires; the military were called in to oversee the transport of spoiling goods from unloaded ships.  It was an episode of extreme weather that has sometimes been treated gaily, as the last truly glorious summer before the world changed forever in 1914, and sometimes darkly as a foreshadowing of the godforsaken chaos of the Great War.  Perhaps Anna Hope chose it as the discomforting and dazzling backdrop for her second novel, The Ballroom, for both the shimmer and the pain of it. 

Set in Sharlston Lunatic Asylum in rural West Yorkshire the book spans the short months from the spring to the autumn of that year and focuses on the linked lives of three asylum residents, two patients and a doctor.  Ella Fay is a young woman committed for a single compulsive act of vandalism; John Mulligan is an Irish migrant whose life was destroyed by poverty and Charles Fuller is a doctor and senior attendant struggling to find his place amidst the change of the early 20th century. The narrative flits between their perspectives in short bursts, with a syncopated beat: Ella John Charles Ella Charles Ella John Charles John Ella Charles John Ella Charles and so on like a catchy tune.  They meet, part and meet very much like in a dance.  Which is fitting since Sharlston itself is built around the spectacular and unexpected ballroom of the title, a vast and fancy space that connects the male and female wings of the asylum.  Each Friday the men and women are invited into this world between worlds to socialise together - awkwardly, ecstatically - while the staff turn themselves into a makeshift orchestra and play for their amusement.   It is in this crucible that Ella and John first meet and begin to imagine how their lives might change, might become better.  At the same time Charles' begins to see how he might make a mark on the world, in a bid to win the influence and respect of the great men he so admires. 

Those who have read Hope's first novel Wake (which was one of my best books of 2014 - go and read it if you haven't) might find this tripartite narrative and binding conceit familiar - that book also wove together three character perspectives and used the burial of the unknown soldier as a centering device.  But don't be fooled.  They are two very different sorts of books.  If Wake was an elegy for lives lost, The Ballroom is a tragedy of lives found.  Not a tragedy in the traditional sense; there is no Shakespearean hero with a fatal weakness of character to commit a fatal lamented act.  Instead it is a tragedy of systems and processes and cultural structures.  It is about the way those things disfigure, narrow and limit lives, about how the most terrible crimes we commit against one another arise out of an impossible bind.  There was some anger and rage in Wake, but it was tempered by loss and sorrow; the burial of the unknown soldier worked to heal and defuse it.  The Ballroom is incandescent with injustice at a deeper level, and though it never entirely gives up hope for change, it doesn't turn away from the impact of that injustice. 

In the novel's opening scene (which begins with the quote above) Ella is newly arrived at Sharlston, having been arrested for breaking a window in the mill where she works.  What she perceives as a minor criminal act is interpreted by the men around her as a symptom of hysteria; of a signal of some deeper depravity.  In her admission interview with Charles she protests: "I broke a window. In the mill. Yesterday. I'm sorry.  I'll pay for it."  She makes the mistake of thinking that her punishment is about the window, when in fact it is about her defiance against the authority of her employers, against the system that keeps her and people like her working in terrible conditions.  She started at the mill as a child, and the noise, the airlessness, the drudgery of it had finally overwhelmed her:

But yesterday morning Ella looked around the room.  Seen the children, with their pinched frightened looks.  Seen the older women, hunched over like half-empty sacks.  The young ones steadying themselves against their frames as though offering themselves up in the din and the lint to the gods of spinning and metal and wool.  She saw the life that was in them passing into the machines, as they gave themselves away in spinning room four. For what? For fifteen shillings at the end of the week and only all of the days to come while everything leached from you and falling asleep and getting beaten for it and the windows so clouded you could never see the sky.

And so she picked up a bobbin and threw it.  The window smashed, the cold air slapped her in the face and she saw "the dark, crouched promise of the moor" beyond, but before she could capitalise on this moment of realisation - that a different life was possible - she was taken. "What did you want to do that for, you mad bitch?" the foreman asks. The next slap is the one from the nurse, with the exhortation to behave and be a good girl. 

John's story is different, but also the same.  His father disappears when he is young - dead or fled - and he takes on responsibility for the family farm in Ireland.  At the same time that he loves the place, loves the land, he hates it too for the terrible weight of responsibility it hangs on him.  It's a relentless life and he is trapped in it and he has to get out, has to get free.  Like so many of his generation he goes first to Liverpool, perhaps intending to get to America, but realises soon enough that he has swapped one struggle for another.  He gets married in the city, has a child, only to be struck by tragedy when his infant daughter dies.  He sinks into a depression; his wife abandons him; he can't get work as a labourer, or not steady work anyway; he walks and walks; he ends up in the workhouse.  In the workhouse he refuses to speak, is classified as catatonic and is transferred to Sharlston. By the time Ella arrives in 1911 he has been there for two years and is on the chronic ward, a shadow of himself with no expectation of recovery.  In a society without safety nets John has simply fallen through.  His depression, his workless vagrancy, has branded him deficient, both mentally and morally, without worth.  To cope with this now limited life he channels himself entirely into the physical outdoor work the fit men do at the asylum, grave-digging in the off-season, agricultural labour on neighbouring farms in the summer. 

It was always like this at first: silence until you got your rhythm up. Your boot finding its place on the lug.  The shaft against your knee. Your breath finding its way. Only the sound of the shovel cutting into the ground and the odd grunt of effort. The cold no longer bearing on you, as all of you went into the digging, making the sides sharp and smooth.  They were good at it, and the hard jobs were the good ones - the ones that made you forget. 

Ella's arrival is like a fist to his gut, a wake-up call.  The first time he sees her she is trying to run away, to escape (this isn't a spoiler, it happens right at the start), shooting towards the graveyard with nurses and doctors in pursuit: The girl was coming closer, arms pumping at her sides, face dark red with the effort of it. A wildness in her. A freedom. It pitched and turned in John's stomach.

And then there is Charles, Dr Charles Fuller.  An indifferent medical student he has landed at Sharlston as a last resort, having almost failed his medical exams and disappointing his parents.  He applies for the work initially because of the advert, which asks for asylum supervisors who can play a musical instrument.  He is a keen violinist, passionate about his music and, hopeful of reconciling his bad start in medicine with his great love, jumps at the chance to perform in and then lead the asylum's orchestra.  He rises quickly through the ranks and by 1911 is a deputy medical officer with aspirations for greatness.  At university he was deeply affected by the rhetoric of eugenics and the pursuit of the 'superior man'.  He aspires to be that man, especially focusing his energies on the therapeutic benefits of music, segregation and controlled contact for mental health.  As a member of the Eugenics Society he is aware of the politics of sterilisation and reproductive control - which was almost legalised in Britain in this period - but believes that his methods are an humane alternative.  He chooses two patients as a case study: John, and Clementine Church, a young woman who has befriended Ella.  Exploiting his God like control over their lives he intends to transform them from lunatics into purposeful members of society. 

Here they were working all hours to offer enlightened care, and here was this stubborn man refusing to participate in his own recovery.  Mulligan had been in the chronic war for months - presumably no one cared whether he recovered or not.  Well, Charles cared. And he was not an advocate for letting someone rot.  Not at all.  Mulligan would dance! And Charles would write about him for the Congress. He would make a case study of the man's redemption!

But Charles' determination to change others and to become the perfect man himself is tragically poisoned from the beginning, and not just because of the condescending privilege that ministers redemption from on high.  He is harbouring a secret, a worm of a shame that he tries to hide even from himself.  He likes to look at the male patients; likes to dwell a little long on their medical examinations, with their shirts undone.  He draws them and litters his room with portraits, ostensibly for medical observation.  A trip to Leeds to buy sheet music  - on a hopeful day before the heat of summer really descends - leads to a delightful frisson with the shop owner, that makes Charles giddy and light-headed.  He seems to be on the verge of recognising his sexual desire for what it is, only for self-loathing and horror to return him to the present.

The atmosphere of The Ballroom grows steadily more claustrophobic.  As the summer sets in John, Ella and Charles are confined by the heat and the rhythms of asylum life.  The window that Ella broke to set the story in motion figures again and again: closed windows, broken windows, the desire to let air in, to keep the heat out.  Love, hope, bitterness and resentment ferment in the high temperatures and the prose pulses with energy.  People try and fail to communicate with one another; when desire does break through it is temporary, a figment of the unlikely season, quick to spoil. The tension in the story tightens and tightens until it's almost unbearable; you want it to just bloody rain and you don't at once, because the end of the sunshine means the end of other things too.  Ever present, always there, are the strings that pull people to and fro and the systems that shape their actions long long before they take them: the moral codes they grew up with, their sense of status, their recognition of privilege, their worldly means, their genders, their sexualities.  As momentum builds towards the crashing final chapters, Hope confronts the inevitable consequences of all the determinations that were preset for her three actors.  When you subtract those, she asks, what is there left to choose?

This is another beautiful and bold book from Anna Hope, both ambitious in it's structure and with the extended emotional reach that I expected after Wake.  It grew and grew on me, from the breathless experience of reading it (in a day, transported from the winter chill of my drafty living room) through the weeks I've thought about it since.  I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the epilogue, how well it fits with the rest of the book and the ending, but I could still be won over to it.  Either way The Ballroom will stay with me for a long while yet I'm sure and is certainly the best book I've read so far this year.  


The Great Divide

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Fig Tree, 2015

304 pages, e-book

*Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

It has been a mild sunny winter morning and my dog Juno really didn't want her early walk to end.  She was in a pootle and sniff sort of mood, and because it was so bright and because I'm overly indulgent ,I let her walk me around our village (pop. 250) and the neighbouring fields for almost two hours.  While she entertained herself tracking mice and digging for spiders, I wrote bits of this post in my head.  I should absolutely have been doing other more useful things but, no regrets, it was a rather lovely way to start the day.  And tomorrow we're forecast more rain rain rain and 60 mile an hour winds so best to enjoy this dry spell while it lasts. 

When winter treats us kindly like this - and we can come home to centrally heated homes and hot showers - it's easy to forget all the ways in which it can make life utterly miserable and marginal.  I'm telling myself stories when I picture myself as a bonafide outdoors-woman in glorious rural isolation with my black labrador; in reality I'm three miles from a supermarket, surrounded by neighbours, just a 25 minute train ride from a major city.  When I plot holidays in remote windy island places in the chilly north I'm dreaming in the context of underfloor heating, double-glazing and log burners.  It's mild extremity with a safety net.  Reading Claire Fuller's debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days is a big smack in the face of a corrective.  Living in a broken down cabin in the middle of a forest after the world has ended, without the most basic of survival tools?  That's actual extremity. 

It's London, during the infamously hot summer of 1976.  Eight year old Peggy and her father James spend their days hunting and foraging in the broken down cemetery at the back of their house, and their nights cooking and camping under the stars.  No school, no baths, no bedtimes.  Peggy's mother Ute, a famous concert pianist, is away on tour in her native Germany and ordinary life has been suspended for the duration.  Inside the house, in the cellar, James is stock-piling food and equipment, writing dozens of lists for supplies for an underground bunker.  He teaches Peggy a drill: when he blows his whistle three times she has to run as fast as possible to pack a rucksack with essentials - her nightie, toothbrush, comb, doll - and then race down to the cellar.  He teaches her how to light a fire, and how to set traps to catch squirrels.  He has her in training for the end of the world. 

James is a Retreater, a survivalist, obsessed with all the ways in which the human race is marching towards it's own destruction.  He is a member of a group - they even have a newsletter - planning to save themselves from doom; and is under the thrall of the charismatic Oliver Hannington, an American who talks big about guns and bullets and getting serious about survival.  After the pair have a violent argument James blows his whistle three times and Peggy packs.  Except this time they don't go to the cellar.  Instead they march out of the house, with no intention of ever going back.  Armed with an old map and a handful of supplies the pair walk and walk and walk; they walk all the way across Europe to a dense, uninhabited forest to a tiny red X inked on the map.  The X marks the spot of die Hutte, a legendary survivalist bolt hole, which is now a ramshackle ruin.  James tells his daughter this will be their new home and, after a raging storm on the first night, claims that the whole world has been destroyed and that they are the only survivors.  He circumscribes the world around die Hutte and says that beyond that is the Great Divide, a black sucking void into which everything Peggy ever knew - Ute, her best friend Becky, her beloved record of The Railway Children - has vanished.  She must promise him never ever to go to the Great Divide, and never ever to leave him.  Because she's eight, and because she's terrified, Peggy promises. 

I sat next to the fire and imagined our microscopic white and green island adrift in the blackness - an overlooked crumb, left behind when the Earth was gobbled whole by the Great Divide.  My father told me any times that winter that the world ended beyond the hills, and he often made me repeat my promise.

Peggy tells us this story herself, in retrospect, from a future time when she has returned to London and a life in the world.  Her narrative is contrapuntal, memories of the time in the die Hutte with her father interwoven with brief bursts of her present reality.  It's beautifully paced, taking it's trilling cues from Liszt's La Campanella, the piano piece that Ute was playing when she first met James.  He takes the sheet music for it when they leave - the only memento he packs from the past - and teaches Peggy to play it on a silent piano he makes out of scraps of wood on their makeshift dining table.  The complex workings of the melody, one moment meditative and the next frantic, reflects both life in the wilderness and the crashing ups and downs of their internal lives.  James is prone to fits of manic activity and enthusiasms, followed by desperate lows that too easily spin into violence and destruction.  In the middle of nowhere the worst excesses of his moods can be a matter of life and death. 

The keynote of the novel, unsurprisingly, is survival, both in the physical and psychological sense.  Peggy and her father are exposed to the limits of human subsistence in their first winter in die Hutte, almost starving to death because of a lack of preparation.  They then have to work tirelessly and with great ingenuity in order to live year after year in total isolation, with no way to recoup their supplies or extend their cache of tools.  Their diet is severely limited to what grows or can be caught in their patch of forest; and they have no mental stimulation except each other and their immediate surroundings.  Their bodies deteriorate, their teeth rot, Peggy's growth is stunted.  At the same time the mental toll on them both is enormous.  Increasingly it's clear that Peggy's young mind conjured coping mechanisms that now severely limit her reliability as a narrator.  She tells us this herself, early on, so we've been warned. 

This is what happened; that is how I remember it.  But the doctors say my brain plays tricks on me, that I have been deficient in vitamin B for too long and my memory doesn't work the way it should.  They have diagnosed Korsakoff's syndrome and prescribed large orange pills... They think I've forgotten things that really happened and invented others. 

One symptom of Korsakoff's syndrome is a tendency to confabulate, to make up stories to fill gaps in time.  It becomes difficult to know which parts of Peggy's story are made up and which are real.  Even as a little girl she seems to have had a great gift for make-believe.  She conducts whole conversations with her doll Phyllis and spins mundane things into magic:

I made a hollow in the soft dough, pushing the cheese inside, so that together the two became an albino vole in a mudbank.  Then the piece of bread and cheese became a brown mouse with a yellow nose, which ran up and down my leg and sat on top of my knee, twitching its whiskers.  I offered it to Phyllis's pouting mouth, but she didn't want any. 

Perhaps it's this gift of imagination that saves her as she grows up.  She has a talent for disassociation, signaled early on by her willingness - at her father's urging - to change her name from Peggy to Punzel.  It starts as a game after James laughingly calls her Rapunzel, but quickly becomes part of her sense of self.  Peggy is a little girl who lives in London with her mum and dad and goes to school and reads The Railway Children; Punzel is a wild child of the forest who lives in a little wooden hut with her father, chopping wood and skinning squirrels.  

The reason Our Endless Numbered Days is such a strong novel, I think, is because it is as interested in what happens if you survive than in the mechanics of surviving itself.  Reading Peggy's story in hindsight, we are getting to know her after the fact, after she has been irrevocably shaped by what has happened to her.  Last year I read The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer, another book about a child who is abducted and lost for many years.  In fact, the two came out at almost the exact same time.  I'm sorry I didn't read them together, because they make interesting companions, both thematically and stylistically.  Hamer's book focused on what happened to the abducted and the mother left behind in real time, and ended when the pair were reunited.  This is not that; it isn't about separation and reunion.  Instead Fuller's books is about alienation, destruction and remaking of the self.  If you survive nine years of mental and psychological hardship, who do you become?  The answer in the form of Peggy is disconcertingly ambivalent.  James has changed his daughter irrevocably.  He has made her a survivor in the very truest sense.  But what next?

"...sometimes when I was alone in the forest I would think about Becky - what she had smelled like, how she had sounded, what she might have said to make things better: "You ought to be happy.  You won't know how happy you are, till your pretty life in die Hutte is over and done with."

She isn't plucky.  She hasn't been transformed into a gutsy young heroine who can take on anything in the mode of superheroes everywhere.  She has been through a crucible and what has come out is a bit broken, a bit unpredictable, a bit frightening and a bit beautiful, all at the same time.  

Our Endless Numbered Days won last year's Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction, which seems thoroughly deserved to me, and is now out in paperback.  If you're going to read any of the hyped books of the moment, then I would definitely definitely recommend you chose this one.  It knocks The Girl on the Train out of the park and then some.