OUR ENDLESS NUMBERED DAYS
by Claire Fuller
Tin House Books, 388 pages
reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier
Claire Fuller’s mesmerizing novel begins with a black-and-white photograph from 1976: the once-upon-a-time that her narrator, 17-year-old Peggy Hillcoat, is trying nine years later to recall.
The picture opens a window into a living room in Highgate, London, where a group of so-called “Retreaters,” among them Peggy’s father James, meet to discuss their defense against environmental and economic catastrophe. In the photo, eight-year-old Peggy’s image is blurred; she’s being led from the room by her disapproving mother Ute, while James clenches his fists and Oliver Hannington, his sinister-seeming friend, smiles “as though he wanted posterity to know he wasn’t really interested in the group’s plans for self-sufficiency and stockpiling.”
But memory is partly projection; for Peggy, the photo is like a magic mirror, reflecting what she knows unconsciously but can’t yet claim. Her sudden, strange behavior after looking at it—using scissors to cut around her father’s face, then slicing off her bra and tucking his image beneath her breast—is the reader’s first clue that the “bloody Armageddon” she’s trying to recover is an entirely different disaster from the kind these survivalists predict.
As the story opens, the “forest girl” has been rescued and reunited with her piano prodigy mother and an 8-year-old brother she’s never met, after nearly a decade of (barely) surviving with her father in the woods. Washed and fed and disoriented in this civilized setting, she takes a seat at the piano and places her fingers where her father once laid his, on the “neat white row of keys, like polished teeth.” When Ute mentions the long-ago time when she went to Germany on a concert tour and Peggy “was away” with James, Peggy sharply corrects her.
“I was taken,” she says in the passive voice of a fairy tale, the voice that speaks for the damsel who’s never the agent in her own narrative.
Other elements of traditional fairy tales resonate throughout this odd, remarkable story about a father and daughter living beyond what he convinces her is the post-apocalyptic Great Divide: the archetypal journey into the woods; the “bug-out” cottage in an enchanted forest; the cunning, predatory wolf; the maiden imprisoned in the tower; the savior prince lured by her song; the nicknames James tries out on Peggy—Sleeping Beauty, Little Blue Riding Hood (for the blue balaclava packed in her bug-out bag)—before he chooses “Punzel,” short for Rapunzel.
James prepares Punzel for the trip with military drills and moral lessons delivered in storybook form. “Long ago, in a land called Hampshire,” he tells her, “there was a family who lived together in die Hütte. They survived off the land and no one ever told them what to do.” He claims, on Oliver’s authority, that the woods are full of berries and mushrooms, the river stocked with fish, and the warm cottage equipped with a piano he promises to teach her to play. What happens to Peggy and her father when the story behind the picture turns out not to be true?
Punzel’s first-person narration is at times strangely—strategically—vague, both reflecting her developing self-awareness and mimicking a mode of literature derived from oral narratives. Idiosyncratic details fall away with each telling to reveal essential themes: in “Rapunzel,” the ward is banished by her guardian when she lets a lover in. Allusions to the Grimms’ version of the old French tale support Fuller’s original, psychologically authentic story of a daughter growing up and breaking free of her father’s spell.
“What’s the point of sitting in a classroom when the sun’s shining and there are plenty of things to teach you at home?” James asks Punzel after Ute leaves, pressing her to skip school. Days turn to weeks as together they create a garden utopia in their backyard. James teaches Punzel to trap and cook squirrels and rabbits, to distinguish between poisonous and edible mushrooms, and to start a fire with flint and steel. Far from empowering Punzel, though, these talents ensnare her in his quest. “We didn’t give a thought to what we were doing to the garden,” she reflects. “We only considered our next meal—how to find it, how to kill it, how to cook it. And although I would have preferred Sugar Puffs with milk in front of the telly, I joined in the adventure without question.”
Punzel’s impending puberty is the unspoken crisis that finally compels their retreat from home to die Hütte, from civilization to stark survival for nine grinding years. In the woods, Punzel plays her father’s soundless homemade piano, singing the notes to her mother’s signature concert piece. When, as the story goes, she conjures a mysterious savior named Reuben, her passivity is put to lie as events unfold. The novel’s shocking, satisfying ending points to the persistence of the domestic plot in fairy tales, even as it’s flipped. The artful way Fuller keeps—and fractures—fairy tale tradition reveals the truth between image and reality, between the story we read and the one we come to understand.
Elizabeth Mosier is a novelist and essayist. Her reviews have appeared most recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Cleaver. Read more at www.ElizabethMosier.com.