Unsettled Ground is Claire Fuller’s fourth novel. She’s one of those authors whose writing straddles the often very thin line between literary and commercial fiction, not that I’m sure I could define either of those terms. Suffice to say I’ve read and enjoyed all four, beginning with her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, back in 2015. Set in southern England, not too far from where I live, this new novel explores the darker side of rural life through the story of Julius and Jeanie Seeder, middle-aged twins who have lived in the same cottage all their lives.
When Dot thinks she hears a noise in the middle of the night she gets up to investigate, collapsing and hitting her head on the flagstoned hearth. It’s Jeanie who discovers their mother’s body, Julius soon appearing dishevelled with sleep. They know that there are things they must do but both have led lives sheltered from bureaucracy by a mother determined her family kept themselves to themselves. Julius walks to their nearest neighbour, the man whose carelessness has long been held responsible for their father’s death nearly forty years ago, begging the use of his phone. Rawson does what he can to help despite Julius’ obvious dislike, surprisingly upset by the death of his neighbour. The Seeders have led a hand-to-mouth life, existing off part-time jobs and the sale of the produce grown by Dot and Jeanie whose life had been constrained by the heart problem with which she was diagnosed shortly after her father’s death. What they do have is the security of a rent-free place to live, an agreement reached with Rawson apparently in acknowledgement of the part he played in their father’s death. As the twins set about all that must now be done unwelcome and shocking discoveries are made. The closely guarded lives they’ve led on the edge of society begin to unravel until a dramatic climax is reached.
None of them are the people we thought they were
A new novel from Fuller is always something to celebrate for me. Her storytelling is pleasingly immersive, often exploring the lives of society’s outsiders. In Unsettled Ground, she flips perspectives between Jeanie and Julius but we spend most of our time with Jeanie, experiencing little shocks as her mother’s deceptions are uncovered. Themes of rural poverty and homelessness run through the stories of the Seeder twins, fracturing the shiny illusion of country life held by some townies, but Fuller takes care to balance this with kindness. By the end of her novel much has changed for Jeanie and Julius but we’re left with a thread of hope for the future. As ever, this is a spoiler-free zone but if, like me, your heart sinks a little when a dog appears in fiction, I’m here to tell you that the lovely Maude stays the course. Thoroughly deserving of its recent longlisting for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, this is another satisfying read from Fuller making four in six years which strikes me as a pretty impressive score.
Fig Tree: London 9780241457443 304 pages Hardback