In a novel like Our Endless Numbered Days, there is a high risk of packing too much melodrama into a single story. It takes a rare talent to believably spin a tale of parental kidnapping, post-apocalyptic survival, and mental instability, but Claire Fuller masterfully weaves this multifaceted saga with a grace and subtlety that is seldom found in the fiction genre, let alone a literary debut.
Our Endless Numbered Days centers on Peggy Hillcoat, an eight-year-old British schoolgirl who bears witness to her father’s eccentric lifestyle. Her “papa,” James, is utterly convinced that doomsday is imminent, and spends his days teaching Peggy the ins and outs of survival. At first, Peggy indulges in his whims. But one day, her father whisks her away to the wilderness, away from her beloved mother and life as she knows it. According to her father, the rest of the world was destroyed, and as the last two humans alive, they must now make a life for themselves in deep in the forests of Germany.
Alternating between the “present day” of 1985 and flashbacks to her childhood in the woods, Peggy recounts the aching loneliness and frustrations of life with her father, whose decaying mental state leaves her walking on eggshells. As Peggy grows older, she discovers a pair of boots in the forest and begins searching for its owner – a journey that ultimately brings her back to civilization, where she must rebuild her relationship with her mother and the younger brother born in her absence.
The novel is laden with exquisite imagery, particularly once Peggy is spirited away from home. “The river was a deep green, scattered with rocks poking their noses up for a breath. The water charged around them, creating eddies and whirlpools. Closer to the bank, the current dragged lengths of weed along with it so it seemed that long-haired women swam just under the surface, never coming up for air,” Peggy notes as she hikes through the forests of Continental Europe. The passage is a beautiful microcosm of Peggy’s relationship with her father and even the novel itself: the anthropomorphized rocks and weeds are almost mythical in nature, evoking images of rock trolls and mermaids rather than potentially lethal river rapids. The fairy-tale theme also appears in the nickname James bestows upon his daughter: Rapunzel, which she abbreviates to simply Punzel.
“I clung on to him with my arms and legs and we went outside,” Peggy recalls after being swaddled inside her father’s coat for warmth, as they explore an abandoned cabin and its surroundings that they’ll soon call home, “It made me feel strange to think there was no one left to see us emerge…into the snow; no one to wonder at this new double creature—a PapaPunzel. Our two-legged, two-headed body lumbered into the clearing.” The tender moment is a fleeting, even whimsical reminder of the affectionate relationship Peggy once shared with her father. Her childish imagination protects not only herself, but readers as well, from the objective horrors of her ordeal.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this novel is Peggy Hillcoat herself. From start to finish, she carries herself with a courageous self-assurance that indicates wisdom far beyond her years. Yet for all of her keen observations and insights, it becomes increasingly evident that Peggy suffers from post-traumatic stress and is censoring her own story as a coping mechanism. The full extent of her self-delusions aren’t revealed until the final three pages (consider this a warning to not skip ahead in this novel!), and even then readers are left wondering how much, if any, of the story is truthful. The narrative is beautifully structured around the lapses in her memory, and readers scarcely realize this until the very end. Heartrending though it may be, it’s a treat to revisit the story once readers have all the facts. At times, the added insight can utterly transform the mood and meaning of a scene.
Let it be known that Our Endless Numbered Days is not a happy tale. It is brimming with heartbreak and elicits a painfully human sense of sympathy not just for Peggy, but for her parents, too, despite their profound shortcomings and even repugnant behavior towards their daughter. Yet this novel simultaneously carries a sense of hope. Even when Peggy is made aware of the truth behind her kidnapping and its aftermath, she carries on. She is courageous and timid, inquisitive and naïve, harsh and forgiving, and everything in between: in short, she is utterly human, and therein lies the beauty of the novel. Every writer can write about horrific tragedy, but rarely can one capture the gray areas and bright spots of that tragedy.
ERIN DUFFY is a senior at SUNY Geneseo, where she majors in English. She remotely interns for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management and is a creative nonfiction reader for Gandy Dancer.