Book review: Our Endless Numbered Days breathes new life into the novel
The pictorial prose of Claire Fuller’s sensuous debut, winner of the Desmond Elliott prize last year, shows her artist’s eye
Our Endless Numbered Days
by Claire Fuller
“There are things that drift away like our endless numbered days.” So goes the song lyric that lends this sensuous debut novel its title, from the album of the same name by the American singer-songwriter Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, who was the author’s writing soundtrack.
Time does indeed seem to drift for eight-year-old narrator Peggy, who is kidnapped by her survivalist father James and taken to live in a remote cabin in a German forest where James stops keeping a calendar, insisting: “We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes any more.” He also writes his own rules for reality, telling his daughter that they are the last humans alive. Wrenched out of the familiar, Peggy feels “suddenly, desperately homesick”.
The novelist keeps a skilful grip on her own sense of timing as she chronicles characters who lose track of time. The dual narrative moves deftly between eight-year-old Peggy’s perspective and that of 17-year-old Peggy as she readjusts to life back with her mother, Ute, a German concert pianist. Ute met James one fateful day when he was her page-turner at a concert in New York conducted by Leonard Bernstein, but marital discord ensued when he refused to change his tune about the imminent end of the world.
Music weaves through the mesmerising story and pianos play a powerful role in the plot, calling to mind other storylines in which they have proved instrumental, from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to Jane Campion’s The Piano. Out in the forest, James teaches Peggy to play a piano he has made out of pebbles and wood, although it is silent. Peggy learns the only sheet music he has taken with them, La Campanella by Liszt. The song becomes a key survival strategy, Peggy describing how “I used [it] to measure the time” – the music growing to be “etched into my every cell”.
The author, who was one of The Observer’s stand-out debut novelists of 2015, is also an artist, a talent everywhere apparent in the pictorial prose, conjuring the forest bounded by mountain and river. She also enables the reader to visualise abstract emotions and in painterly images pinpoints transformative moments.
The cacophonous closing chapters are not entirely convincing, but overall Fuller – winner of the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize – breathes new life into the novel, interlacing it with other art forms, to poignantly portray the transience of time.