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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: A nice slice of British gothic

Cover imageBitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel and it’s the third I’ve reviewed here. Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list in 2015 and I included Swimming Lessons on my (then) Baileys prize wish list last year. I’m something of a fan, as you can tell, so expectations were a tad high for her new one but I’m glad to report that Fuller has outdone herself. Set largely during the summer of 1969, Bitter Orange tells the story of three people thrown together by circumstance, two of whom have been commissioned to write a report on a dilapidated, abandoned English country mansion. As the summer wears on, an intimate friendship develops but who is telling the truth and who is not?

Fran lies on her deathbed recalling her summer at Lyntons twenty years ago. In 1969, just a few months after the domineering mother she had cared for most of her life had died, Fran was commissioned to survey the garden at Lyntons for its American owner. From her bare attic bedroom she watches two people caught up in disagreement: Peter whose job is to survey the house’s interior and his partner Cara, vividly alive and apparently Italian, or so Fran thinks. Fran barely sees either of these two for days until she’s invited to dinner by Cara, arriving trussed up in her mother’s formal wear to find Cara and Peter in déshabillé, no signs of dinner in preparation. Lonely, socially awkward and naïve, Fran assumes these two to be deeply in love but as she’s pulled into their orbit, listening to Cara’s story of how they got together then finding herself Peter’s confidante about Cara’s instability, Fran begins to wonder what the state of their relationship really is and increasingly drawn to Peter. Slowly but surely tensions rise.

Fuller sets her readers up for an absorbing but suspenseful read, throwing up questions at every turn while spilling clues and foreshadowing the future. Fran is a satisfying narrator, hinting at unreliability by telling us that her illness has destroyed her memory but that the events of 1969 are clear and vivid to her. She’s an expertly drawn character: a self-proclaimed voyeur, an outsider ripe for the intimate seduction of friendship that Cara seems to offer. Fuller treats us to a luxuriously long reveal which suits the novel’s vividly evoked sultry heat well, delivering a satisfying climax at its end. I would have enjoyed Bitter Orange whatever the weather but it turned out to be the perfect read for the early days of July when the UK was in the grips of a heat wave which looks set to make a reappearance.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Knowing the worst or hoping for the best?

Cover imageBack in 2015, Claire Fuller’s much acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list. I have a track record of disappointment with second novels, either expecting too much on my part or perhaps just one excellent novel in them on the author’s. Nothing wrong with that, of course: I don’t even have a mediocre one in me. Fuller’s new book, however, is very far from a disappointment: expectations were not only met but exceeded. Swimming Lessons is the story of a mother who disappears, leaving her family and her philandering husband with a paper trail of letters hidden among his many books.

Ingrid and Louise are studying English in ‘70s London, determined not to replicate their mothers’ lives. No marriage, children and drudgery for them: they plan to travel the world, to achieve. Gil Coleman teaches Ingrid creative writing. He’s a colourful figure with a novel or two under his belt, happily seducing his students but with his sights set on marriage and six children. Ingrid thinks their affair will be a mere summer fling but finds herself pregnant and installed in Gil’s seaside home while Louise looks on disparagingly, uncomprehending at what Ingrid has allowed to happen to her. When Nan is born, Ingrid feels nothing. While she frets about how they’re going to live now that Gil has left the university in disgrace, he takes himself off to his writing room, hard at work or so she thinks. Five years later, after a great deal of heartache, a second daughter is born. Then, when Nan is fourteen and Flora not yet nine, Ingrid disappears. Decades later, Gil is staring out of his local bookshop window, convinced he’s seen Ingrid and in his desperate efforts to pursue her, falls badly. Nan and Flora come home to look after him, one resigned to what’s happened and what will happen, the other still hopeful that all her questions will be answered and her dearest wish fulfilled.

From Gil’s dramatic sighting of Ingrid, Fuller draws you into her novel alternating present day events with Ingrid’s story written in letters tucked into appropriate books. It’s a structure which works beautifully, setting up a nice thread of suspense as we ask ourselves what has happened to Ingrid. Fuller perceptively explores the complexities of motherhood, marriage and love, overarching it all  with the question – would you rather know and accept the worst, as Nan has long resigned herself to do, or carry the bright hope of not knowing that Flora and Gil have fostered since Ingrid’s disappearance. It’s an engrossing story, beautifully expressed. Fuller’s writing is quite cinematic at times – vivid snapshots which reminded me of her flash fiction, a weekly pleasure. The little bibliographical note at the end of each of Ingrid’s letters is a treat for the anoraks among us, and I loved Gil’s annoyed response about first editions: ‘Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers’. Quite so.

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: A smart, funny road trip of a novel

Cover imageThere’s been a bit of pre-publication brouhaha for Jade Chang’s debut, much more subdued that the constant shouting which can be so off-putting but just enough to put it on my radar. Set in 2008 with the financial world about to crash with the loudest of bangs, it’s about a family whose cosmetics mogul father suddenly finds himself bankrupt in a country he thought he’d made his own. He decides to claim his fabled ancestral land in China but first he needs to gather his family together.

Charles Wang is spitting tacks. The American dream has crashed to smithereens all around him, robbing him of his fortune and putting him out on the streets. This is not what he came to America from Taiwan for and worse, his misfortune turns out to be his own fault. Quickly dismissing that thought he sets about assembling his three children and whisking them off to China, a place he’s never set foot in himself, to wrest his family’s land from the Communists. He and his bemused second wife pack up his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes, lock up their Bel-air mansion for the last time and head off to pick up his sixteen-year-old daughter from her boarding school. Told to bring only the important things, Grace packs up her picture gallery of dead people, downloads her style blog and installs herself on the back seat soon to be joined by Andrew, not entirely sure about leaving his Arizona college but lured by the idea of open mic opportunities to air his standup routines en route. These four are heading for Charles’ eldest daughter’s farmhouse in upstate New York where she’s failed to escape her wastrel ex-lover and the  disgrace of her latest art installation. An eventful journey ensues in which more than a few lessons are learned.

A road trip is a wonderful structure for a novel, lots of momentum and room for character development. Each member of the Wang family’s story is neatly woven into their odyssey, revealing much about their characters as it unfolds. Chang keeps her tone light while making some serious points along the way. It’s very funny with lots of throwaway lines – ‘I just wear a Che Guevera T-shirt. It doesn’t mean I know anything about actual Communists’ says Andrew – and there are some nice jibes at bleeding heart liberals buying their organic vegetables from a black farmer and feeling good about themselves. It’s a novel that screamed ‘movie’ at me, although of the indie rather than Hollywood variety, please. Really in the end, it’s all about family and connection. The message is simple – you may think lots of money makes you happy but it doesn’t –  which Chang delivers in a thoroughly disarming and entertaining way.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller: The incredible made credible

Cover imageClaire 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.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish: Ageing with grace and eloquence

Cover imageBeing of a certain age, I have several over-80s in my life and have lost several more dear to me in recent years. Some have aged well – I have a lovely memory of my 90-year-old aunt executing high kicks in her kitchen a few months before she died, delighted when H couldn’t match her – and some not so well. Penelope Lively seems to be managing it with grace and eloquence. The first part of her evocatively named Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a meditation on how it feels to be old: the loss of a beloved husband, the bodily aches and pains, the solaces and the changes seen. It leads us to a chapter on Lively’s life, an essay on context: her childhood in Cairo, her experience of the Second World War, how it felt to view the Suez Crisis from Britain while feeling more affinity with Egypt and bringing up a family in the Cold War. The chapter on memory talks of Lively’s fascination with the way that memory works and how that fascination has played into her fiction. We learn more of her own life through a series of snapshots – her most vivid memories from each of her eight decades – illustrating the way in which our memory changes as we get older. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite chapter is on reading and writing. Reading has always been a fundamental part of Lively’s life. She talks eloquently of the way in which reading feeds into writing, of finding what you like often through reading what you don’t like, of the books to which she returns and names her three desert island novels – Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, William Golding’s The Inheritors and, much to my delight, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a personal favourite. I defy any reader not to enjoy a warm cosy glow when they read the sentence ‘To read is to experience.’ The final chapter takes six of her favourite possessions, including the eponymous ammonites and leaping fish, illustrating them and explaining why they are so important to her. It’s not so much a memoir as a series of carefully considered reflections which together form a beautifully expressed illumination of a long life.

The Observer’s New Reading column mentioned several reviews on Amazon complaining about the rip-off price of £1.99 for Lively’s short story, Abroad, which both saddened and annoyed me. As H pointed out £1.99 will buy you around a third to a half a glass of wine depending on the quality, and I’m sure the quality was high. We’ve all become used to paying very little for books but perhaps we forget to consider how much enjoyment, and some times enlightenment, we’re buying, and how many people need to be paid to produce a book, not least the author although they often are at the bottom of the pile. What do you think? Is £1.99 too much for 4,000 well-chosen words or do you think it’s fair?

Another day, another prize list

The Authors’ Club Best First Novel shortlist has just been announced, not one that’s likely to send many readers rushing to check out who’s on it but it’s well worth a look. The prize was established in 1954 and although many of the winners have sunk into obscurity some went on to have a very respectable degree of success. Brian Moore, Alan Sillitoe and Jennifer Johnston were early winners while Dan Rhodes, Mick Jackson and Susan Fletcher are more recent successes. It’s chosen from reports submitted by club members rather than publishers. Twelve of the submissions are put to a judging panel for the shortlist then it’s the job of a guest adjudicator to pick the winner. This year’s shortlist is a lively, varied and interesting one, but then they usually are. I’m always on the look out for interesting debuts and so it’s a prize close to my heart.

Cover imageTess Callahan’s April and Oliver is a debut which has been sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelves for quite some time. I’m usually a sucker for small town American novels but this one has such an insipid cover that everything else seemed more interesting. A shame, as it turns out to be an enjoyable and absorbing novel about the attraction between two step cousins – April, who’s abuse by a family friend has left her unable to have a relationship with any man other than one who beats her and Oliver, a thoroughly nice man engaged to a thoroughly nice woman but unable to shrug off his feelings for April. Nothing to set the world on fire but it’s deserving of a wider audience than its dismal Amazon ranking suggests it has. First novels are difficult to sell unless they’re in the media spotlight, awarded the Costa First Novel Award or the subject of an expensive Cover imagemarketing campaign usually reserved for big names. Readers have a limited amount of cash and want to feel sure that they’re buying something they can look forward to, the safest bet being a track record. But publishers could help by packaging a first novel as if they had faith in it otherwise it’s likely to sink without trace. If you want to see a debut novel with a jacket which shouts ‘pick up this book’, take a look at Warpaint by Alicia Foster. Set in the dark days of 1942, it throws light on the rarely explored work of women artists and the world of wartime propaganda, both covert and public, all with the pace of a page turning thriller. You really can judge this book by its excellent cover.