From the moment I heard about this book – Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, now available in e-book and audio, published in hardback on Thursday (2nd August) – I’ve been longing to read it. And I was delighted to receive an advance copy from the publishers, Fig Tree Books (Penguin) and to hold its beautiful cover in my hands – and the e-copy via netgalley that I chose to read. Like so many other readers, I loved the author’s debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (you’ll find my review here, together with an interview with the author) – and Swimming Lessons was a book I unusually read more than once, wanting to extract every last drop of pleasure (review here). But this one…
From the attic of a dilapidated English country house, she sees them – Cara first: dark and beautiful, clinging to a marble fountain of Cupid, and Peter, an Apollo. It is 1969 and they are spending the summer in the rooms below hers while Frances writes a report on the follies in the garden for the absent American owner. But she is distracted. Beneath a floorboard in her bathroom, she discovers a peephole which gives her access to her neighbours’ private lives.
To Frances’ surprise, Cara and Peter are keen to spend time with her. It is the first occasion that she has had anybody to call a friend, and before long they are spending every day together: eating lavish dinners, drinking bottle after bottle of wine, and smoking cigarettes till the ash piles up on the crumbling furniture. Frances is dazzled.
But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever.
Indulge me, and let me just linger over the cover for a moment – that well-chosen quote from Gabriel Tallent and the perfect image of the fragmented fine china plate, the shrivelled and juiceless oranges, the richness of the colours, and the way it perfectly captures the story (and experience) that lies within.
And oh my goodness, what a wonderful sensory experience it was. The sultry summer, the long languorous days, the stifling atmosphere and that discomfiting feeling of acute claustrophobia, the darkness and near unbearable tension permeating it all, the moments of unbridled and intoxicating joy – the yearning to find out how it all ends, while hoping beyond hope that it never does. The writing in this book is quite breath-taking – the detailed descriptions perfectly capturing the glory of the past and its decay, the dazzling beauty and the rottenness beneath it all.
I loved the book’s structure – the approach of the end of Frances’ life, the memories of that period when she experienced a life totally outside her experience. The characterisation is exceptional – a moving portrait of loneliness and awkwardness, the attraction of the exotic and different, the awakening of something she’d never felt before, that headiness of belonging. And then there are Cara and Peter, magnetic and fascinating, with their tempestuous relationship, their decadence and disregard for convention, the layering of stories around them, the difficulty in identifying any kind of truth amid the mist of fantasy and lies.
While it might be fair to call the narrative slow burning, the book also manages to be an unexpected page-turner, a (very different) psychological thriller – with that constant edginess, the suggestion of darkness, and a feeling that something quite unimaginably horrific is waiting just around the next corner. And when it finally comes… but you must read this wonderful book. Without question, one of my books of the year – I absolutely loved it.
About the author
Claire Fuller is the author of Swimming Lessons (published 2017), which was shortlisted for the Encore Prize for second novels, and Our Endless Numbered Days (2015) which won the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. Her third novel, Bitter Orange will be published in August 2018.