*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless’
Our Endless Numbered Days was something a little different for my reading list and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I ended up reading it mostly in two sittings, completely immersed in Claire Fuller’s vivid prose and the way the narrative alternates between time-frames (the time spent in the forest, and the time after the return to civilisation).
Fuller weaves elements of the post-apocalyptic, the pastoral (hence the comparisons with Walden and Donoghue’s Room) and even suspenseful/psychological horror into her literary fiction, which she based on the ‘true’ life story of Robin van Helsum (a Dutch boy who claimed to have survived in a German forest with his father for 5 years). It’s a fascinating and mysterious premise which Fuller builds upon in an intriguing way, laying clues and lulling the reader into a false sense of security of ‘knowing’ what’s going to happen, or feeling as if they have predicted it (I felt the twists coming but their effect was in no way diminished). Instead, she has you, the reader, firmly where she wants you – right to the end.
It is Peggy’s father, James, who whisks her away to a hut (die Hütte) in the middle of a forest to begin a new life, away from civilisation. Initially he tells her that her mother, Ute, has died in a car crash while on tour; and then that civilisation itself has ended, and they are the only people left alive. The book's timeline begins in the 70s, depicting the ill-suited marriage of her mother and father and his involvement with a group of Survivalists who discuss methods for surviving the end of the world (amidst the historical context of the Cold War and the potential of nuclear catastrophe).
‘They were members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’
We know it takes Peggy nine years to return to her family – her mother, very much alive, and a brother she never knew she had - but we do not know just how much she has been changed or quite exactly what really happened in those woods until the end. She is by no means a reliable narrator, spending the formative years of her life alone in the woods with her increasingly unstable father. We become immersed in the experience of life in die Hütte, as young Peggy narrates it, delighting in the practical and the gritty aspects of survival – the skinning of squirrels, the hardships of winter, the descent of her father into madness and the possibility that they are not alone in those woods.
‘My father dropped a pile of foreign coins in her leathery palm and we hurried away. I had no idea this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and tucked my knees around one of her stout legs. Stuck fast, like a limpet or a Siamese twin, I would have been carried with her when she rose in the morning to milk the cow, or into her kitchen to stir the porridge. If I had known, I might never have let her go'
In die Hütte, Peggy and her father construct a makeshift/imitation piano and music becomes both a way to stay sane and a measure of the descent into insanity.
‘If there was anyone else out there in all that blackness, a solitary note might flit through infinity and land on a shoulder to find its way inside that person’s head.’
Physically, Peggy becomes a young woman over those years and yet she is stuck in a state of timelessness, a feral unreality with a father who is so consumed by grief that he even sometimes confuses her identity.
The majority of the book is spent in the forest with Peggy and her father, and it is those sections you’ll want to re-read carefully come the end of the book. As a reader, you also enter a sense of timelessness as you read those years, so the change of pace and canter towards the ending is all the more startling and abrupt, leaving you with plenty to think about. A period of 8-9 years of daily, ritual survival in such a claustrophobic setting and without a concept of time or end-goal, could have been a challenge to read. But the sections in the forest do not lag because of the rich and vivid language and the interesting dynamic the two characters have with each other, themselves, and the world around them.
I found one moment particularly poignant and illuminative – where Peggy’s father tells her a bedtime story with her as the protagonist:
‘She heard the people of the world fighting with each other … they couldn’t live together happily. They lied to each other and when people do that, in the end, the world they have built will always come tumbling down. Punzel hated hearing the people of the world lie and argue. But one day she woke to find that the angry planet was silent; all she could hear was the sound of her father chopping wood for the stove and the animals asking her to come out to play. And Punzel was the happiest girl in the world.‘
Although he makes his daughter the protagonist, this says so much about James and whether he can be truly empathised or sympathised with. For him, there was a kind of apocalypse, one that destroyed everything he believed and made him renounce his faith in the world and the company of others. The book is also his tragedy, and the tragedy of a relationship/relationships gone wrong.
In a way, I would have been curious to continue to see what happened next – how Peggy recovers and assimilates back into everyday existence – whether she can get her grip back on reality or if the effects and beliefs of those years have left her with psychological scars that run too deep. Fuller’s chosen ending nevertheless allows your imagination to run wild, encouraging you to think more deeply about what has gone on, and it certainly packs an emotional and psychological punch.