I was a little afraid to read Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Full (Tin House Books, 2015), because I thought it might bring up bad childhood memories. I was also serving on a grand jury at the time and felt like I was hearing an over-abundance of traumatic family stories. I decided to give it a go one morning as I rushed to catch a bus. I had about 30 minutes of reading time on the ride and if it was too disturbing, I could pass it on to someone else. Instead, I was gripped by it. When I got out of court that day, I was grateful that I’d just missed a bus home so I had an extra 20 minutes to read what proved to a compelling novel so skillfully written that I missed my home stop twice while lost in the story.
The narrator, Peggy, was lured at age 8 by her survivalist father from their home in London for a holiday at Die Hutte, a place he’s described to her often as a perfect place to live. Her mother, a German concert pianist, was away on tour.
The holiday turns into an arduous journey. Peggy wants to go home, but her father tells her his worst fears have come true. Peggy’s mother is dead. The whole world has been destroyed. They are the last living humans.
Peggy, her doll and her father arrive at a decrepit cabin deep in the Bavarian woods. It wasn’t the gingerbread house Peggy had been led to expect:
“Its wall hung with wooden shingles, and where they were missing, dark gaps grimaced like a mouth with knocked out teeth. The front door hung open at an angle, and the single window had warped and popped its glass. The only thing to remind me of home was the bramble that scrambled across the roof and dropped in loops through the gaps in the shingles that were nailed there too. Searching for light, the bramble had reached the window and now stuck its blind tendrils out, beckoning us to join it inside.
“Saplings sprouted unchecked against the walls, so it appeared as if Die Hutte, ashamed of its disheveled appearance, was trying, and failing, to hide behind them. I half expected a trail of breadcrumbs to lead off into the trees that pressed in from both sides.”
The book opens when she is back home, at age 17, trying to adjust to the fact that the world is very much alive, her mother loves her, and her father had lied. Fuller braids past and present together in a vivid, harrowing narrative that wears the grim beauty of a fairy tale. Peggy even changes her name to Rapunzel, or Punzel, as she and her father make their way to Die Hutte.
Life in the woods is brutal. Her father had already groomed her for a survivalist life – taught her how to find edible plants and mushrooms, how to trap and skin animals. His introduction to daily life in the wild is brutal, but he also made her a piano:
“The piano was clunky and crude, but I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing. Despite all the whittling, many of the keys stuck together and continual playing gave me blisters and splinters. Several times my father took it apart to shave off a sliver and pack it all together again. And yet I could press a key and hear the note it made, release and the key would pivot back to a resting position and the sound would stop.
“The creation of the piano had taken the summer and the best days of the autumn. We should have been gathering and storing food and wood for the winter and, too late, we discovered that music could not sustain us.”
They come close to starvation, but they subsist. And years pass, their sense of time reverts to sense of season. Their teeth rot. Punzel’s long hair becomes a mat of tangles. One day, she finds a pair of boots and her search for the owner ultimately leads her back into civilized life. Fuller’s plotting kept me enthralled through to the end.
As I read the book, I reflected on the human need for story, for illusion, for making sense of what may ultimately be unfathomable. The characterization of story and music, the way Peggy uses them to make life more manageable, is part of the magic of this book. The magic is old and not necessarily kind – more of what the old original Grimm tales were like. They enchant and mesmerize but are frightening and troubling, too.
And as her story progresses, you see and feel how the way Peggy/Punzel has made a story for herself that has lightened her unbearable burdens.
This is not meant to be a settling or calming book, but it’s deep and thoughtful, alive and haunting. It captivated me as I pondered the especially challenging cases I was hearing on the grand jury, the stories people told, how a loved family member can suddenly become an abuser. People and families are so complicated. If we couldn’t create stories, how would we survive?
Claire Fuller is an artist and writer who lives in Winchester, England. This is her first novel. You can read more about her by clicking here.
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