Fans of the English author Claire Fuller (55) know that the author loves secrets. This is how the plot of her debut unfolds Our endless days (2015) revolves around a mysterious family crisis that the daughter will only understand as a grown woman. IN Swimming lessons (2017, strangely not published in Dutch translation) an unhappy wife decides to disappear from the face of the earth, and her family discovers why only after twelve years. And in the psychological thriller Bitter Orange (2018) all the main characters seem to carry a secret with them. Also in troubled ground (shortlisted for the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021) the lives of the protagonists are overshadowed by secrets.
The story begins with the sudden death of Dot Seeder, mother of 51-year-old twins Jeanie and Julius, who both still live at home. The hermit trio live in a dilapidated cottage in the isolated British countryside. They live off the produce from their vegetable garden and fruit trees and keep a few chickens. The house is cold and damp, the power has recently been cut off, the spring snow is seeping through the cracks. There is no car, central heating or TV; the outside world only reaches them via radio. Clothes come from the thrift store, Jeanie shares a bed with her mother. But despite the lack of money and education, the twins grew up in love, we infer from the sporadic flashbacks. There is a fireplace, a dog, a banjo and a piano.
The death of Dot – a death scene by Fuller so stunningly beautifully described that after reading it you will never be afraid of death again – throws brother and sister into the evil world in one fell swoop. Given no time to mourn, the twins are faced with sky-high funeral costs, bureaucracy and meddling with villagers. To make matters worse, Dot is in debt to the Rawsons, the wealthy landowners of the nearby manor. The children are stunned: as far as they know, there was ‘an agreement’ that after their father’s death – he worked on the land – the family could continue to live in the house for free.
It sets in motion the inevitable: the twins are kicked out, an event that not only disrupts their symbiotic relationship, but ultimately sheds a different light on their mother’s past.
The reader must constantly remind himself that this story does not take place at the beginning of the last century, when the potato crops failed and half of Europe lived in abject poverty, so cruel, dark and hopeless is the setting in Unsettled ground. Instead, Claire Fuller portrays the poor in the 21st century, who are becoming more numerous due to growing inequality of opportunity in our society. It is a group that often cannot or hardly can read and write, who feel hopelessly lost in the modern world of online banking and mobile phones. People who just manage – until problems arise in the form of illness, divorce or death.
The daily struggle that the brother and sister have or rather go through after the brutal eviction is painful to feel. When Julius discovers an abandoned caravan in the forest, they move into it. Jeanie tries “not to think about what it will be like in the winter: without heating, with the outside latrine, the mud, the wet.” And when it gets too dangerous there, she sleeps in the urine-smelling public toilet in the village. During the day, she hides her sleeping bag and underwear behind the house in a plastic bag in the hope that the things will not be stolen. At the hospital, where Julius ends up at the right time, she swallows the remains of cold fries that people leave on their trays. She smells herself.
But the most poignant thing is that little by little it becomes clear that Dot was not who they thought she was. And even if it ends troubled ground in a sense on a hopeful note, what lingers is the haunting message that ‘our story’ depends largely on what we are told, or on what we tell ourselves. Fuller expresses this unsettling sentiment in the passage where a minor character reminisces about his mother: “All I remember of her is playing the piano,” he says. ‘Brown lace-up shoes on brass pedals. She died when I was 4. (…) When I spoke to my aunt recently, she said that my mother had never played the piano. We never even had one. It was my aunt I remembered.’
And so in the end nothing is what it seems, we are not ourselves as we thought we were. Claire Fuller is in troubled ground the plot on which the summer house stands is skilfully turned up. She leaves us with a vague feeling because, as Jeanie herself sighs, “It’s hard to rewrite your own history.”
Claire Fuller: troubled ground. Translated from English by Mieke Prins. Publisher Mosaik; 320 pages; €22.99.