Claire Fuller’s flash fiction is one of my regular treats. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, she posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. Given all that, it’s no surprise that her debut was top of my February reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer.
Peggy is the daughter of a German concert pianist and an English man who once stepped in as her page-turner, then fell in love with her. In the summer of 1976, Ute is about to go on tour for the first time in many years while James and his North London Retreater friends play at being survivalists. These are the Cold War years and James trains Peggy to pack her rucksack in four minutes flat. When Ute begins her tour, Oliver Hannington moves in – Peggy knows he’s dangerous but can’t possibly understand how he will change her life beyond all imagining. After a murderous row with Oliver, James tells Peggy that they are off on holiday to ‘die Hütte’ where Ute will meet them when her tour is over. It’s an arduous journey and when they finally arrive after picking their way through mountains and forests, they find the hut is derelict. James sets about repairing it, putting to use the skills that he and Peggy have learned camping in their Highgate back garden, skinning squirrels and rabbits, curing skins and foraging. As summer slides into autumn, Peggy begins to worry about getting back to school. It is then that James delivers the devastating news that the rest of the world has been destroyed. Her mother is dead: it’s just the two of them now.
Interspersing Peggy’s memories with her slow reacclimatisation, Fuller skilfully unfolds the story of those nine years, vividly summoning up the mad world which James constructs to keep his daughter away from reality. It’s quite an achievement, apparently inspired by a hoax – a young Dutchman who claimed to have been living in the forest with his father until he died in 2011 but turned out to be a runaway – yet absolutely believable. Peggy chats with her doll Phyllis, takes refuge in the sheet music James has brought, playing the soundless piano he makes for her, believing utterly in the father she trusts despite the incredibility of the story he spins to hold her under his sway. When it comes, the resolution is an inventive one. It’s a powerful tale of madness and resilience – I wonder what Fuller will do next.