It’s such a pleasure – and indeed, an honour – to be joining the blog tour today and sharing my review of Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Long-listed for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Literature, it was published by Fig Tree Books (a Penguin imprint) on 25th March, and is now available in hardcover, as an e-book, and as an audiobook. My thanks to Hannah at Penguin for the invitation to join the tour, and for my advance proof copy – and an extra thank you to the publishers for also approving my request for an e-copy (provided via netgalley), as I do struggle these days to read on paper.
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 can still recall it in detail, and how it made me feel. Swimming Lessons was a book I unusually read more than once, wanting to extract every drop of pleasure (review here). And then came Bitter Orange, perfectly structured, richly atmospheric, with a compelling story, which (although it’s rather like picking your favourite child) might just be the one I enjoyed the most – you can read my review again here. A new book from Claire is always a good reason for celebration and excitement, and I was so looking forward to this one…
What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant?
What would you do to get it back?
Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.
But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.
Unsettled Ground is a heart-stopping novel of betrayal and resilience, love and survival. It is a portrait of life on the fringes of society that explores with dazzling emotional power how we can build our lives on broken foundations, and spin light from darkness.
At the beginning, there’s a timelessness about this story – the privations suffered by the central characters, their simple way of life initially convince you that it must be set in the early 20th century, perhaps even earlier. It comes as a jolt when you realise that it’s set in the present day, the world of mobile phones and on-line engagement that’s entirely alien to Jeanie – at 52, with a rheumatic heart problem limiting her activities, her world has been confined to life with her mother, tending their vegetable garden, eking out a meagre existence in rural isolation.
Her twin, Julius, is a little more worldly, picking up casual work where he can to bolster their sparse income – he’s rather slipped into the role of being his sister’s protector, but it doesn’t necessarily stop some of the funds passing over the pub counter. The death of mother Dot forces them both to deal with life’s realities – something for which neither of them are equipped, with Jeanie’s strong sense of self sufficiency and never owing anything to anyone only making life considerably more difficult.
There’s a whole series of small (and considerably larger) revelations about the events of the past that shaped them, that brought them to this point in their lives – and the world outside intrudes, destabilises everything, and threatens both their lives and wellbeing. Jeanie is barely literate, the scene when she needs to register her mother’s death particularly poignant and harrowing, and that’s certainly not the only time when the book holds a mirror to contemporary society and finds it considerably lacking in either empathy or compassion.
The characterisation in this book is stunning, and accomplished in a way I’ve never come across before – although the story is told from both Jeanie’s and Julius’ viewpoint, any internal dialogue is sparse, their characters more defined by their actions and the thought behind them, and it’s incredibly powerful. And this isn’t a simple double-hander – there’s a particularly strong supporting cast (supporting, more rarely supportive), every individual complex and well-drawn, their motivation often questionable, their actions at times unbearably damaging and painful.
There is joy amid the bleakness, and that primarily comes from music – Jeanie, Julius and Dot have always sung and played together, and the importance of their music as a source of consolation and comfort is superbly handled, frequently uplifting and reassuring, a little light in the darkness.
The world the author creates is very real – but seeing things through the eyes of the primary characters skews the lens a little, makes you understand how it can be a frightening place, how essential goodness isn’t necessarily enough to ensure safety and survival. It’s important too, I think, to acknowledge how deeply this book makes you feel – so deeply it sometimes hurts, often hard to read – and also has the ability to make you incandescent with rage with an overwhelming feeling of injustice.
I’ve always been an immense fan of Claire Fuller’s writing, the luminous prose, the descriptions and imagery that appeal to all the senses, the way she develops a compelling story. I really thought she couldn’t better Bitter Orange – but I was so wrong. The Women’s Prize long list is a particularly strong one this year, but this book is deserving of every possible accolade… should it win, nothing could make me more delighted.
‘So sharply, so utterly brilliant that I found myself holding my breath while reading it, dazzled by Fuller’s mastery and precision’ LAUREN GROFF, author of Fates and Furies
‘A gorgeously written celebration of the natural world as well as a moving portrait of a family struggling against time’ LUCY TAN
‘Claire Fuller strikes the perfect balance between beauty and melancholy, in this relevant and powerful exploration of isolation and life on the fringes of society’ CLARE MACKINTOSH, author of After the End
About the author
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. She has written three previous novels: Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize, Swimming Lessons, which was shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award, and Bitter Orange. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband.