Highgate, London, November 1985
This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn't look like a liar. My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps. The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.
On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting. It was the last picture that had been taken of my father. He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble. He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today. (pp. 7-8, e-ARC edition)
Every once in a while, there will be a news item about the abduction of a child by a relative. Sometimes, the reasons are as mundane as anger over a divorce/custody settlement, but occasionally there is something much more bizarre about it. Perhaps the relative (often a father or uncle, but occasionally a mother) is involved in a cult, or possibly there is a doomsday survivalist angle to it. Regardless of the specific details, the stranger stories are the ones that capture the public's attention, especially when the child escapes or is returned to the wider world after years in seclusion.
In Claire Fuller's debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, she narrates this abduction story from the viewpoint of a then-eight-year-old girl, Peggy, whose father, James, has taken her from her English home while her German-born mother, Ute, is off on a concert tour. Moving back and forth in time from the late 1970s to 1985, when she is returned to civilization, Fuller explores just how a young child might adapt to being thrust into a primitive world in which she is told her mother and all of civilization has been destroyed in a cataclysm and that she must learn how to survive with the help of her father.
Fuller does an excellent job in developing Peggy's character and the situation in which she finds herself, both in her initial exposure to the wild and later in the flash-forward chapters where she is trying to reintegrate herself into modern society. Fuller utilizes detailed, vivid descriptions to great effect, such as this scene near the middle of the novel in which Peggy's father takes her out of their "die Hütte" into the greater, snow-covered wilderness deep in a German forest:
I clung to him with my arms and legs and we went outside. It made me feel strange to think there was no one left to see us emerge from die Hütte into the snow; no one to wonder at this new double creature – a PapaPunzel. Our two-legged, two-headed body lumbered into the clearing.
"This whole wonderful world is yours and mine, Punzel. Everything you can see is ours. Beyond the Fluss, over the hill" – he pointed in that direction – "there's nothing. If you carried on over the top, you'd fall off the edge into a never-ending blackness. Ptarrr!" He loosened his grip on me.
I shrieked as I felt a lurch with the drop of my body, before he caught me again.
He laughed at my fright and then became serious. "And the same with the mountain." He turned, running his outstretched arm in a semicircle, taking in all the places I knew: the forest, the clearing, the cabin, and the rocky slope up to the summit. We both looked up to the sharp line slicing through the white sky. "On the other side there is only emptiness, an awful place that has eaten everything except our own little kingdom."
"What's it called?" I asked in an awed whisper.
He paused, and I thought it was because even the name must be too terrible to speak. At last he said, "The Great Divide. And you must promise never to go there. I couldn't survive without you. We're a team, you and I, aren't we?"(p. 187-188 e-ARC edition)
Here can be seen both the daughter's credulous wonder at this wintry expedition and her father's manipulations. Although there are places where the reader can anticipate later plot developments, Fuller does such a good job in laying out Peggy's inner emotions that even when situations occur much as what one might expect based on the narrative, there really is not an urge to skim through to the "present" sections because the prose is so well-developed that it makes the reader want to linger over certain passages, re-reading them again for the full effect.
There are few weaknesses evident. Perhaps at times too much is described or, conversely, a few moments that could have used a little more exposition. These, however, are few in number and they do not affect the overall narrative flow. As stated above, Fuller excels at writing descriptive prose through the eyes of a child, one who is not aware at first just how traumatized she has become, both by the initial abduction and her eventual return to society. Peggy's deceptively complex character provides a perspective to the narrated events that readers might not have anticipated, based on their familiarity with abduction/rescue tales. Our Endless Numbered Days is a very strong debut, one that readers of various genres should appreciate reading.