Fans of the English writer 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 an adult woman. In Swimming Lessons (2017, curiously not published in Dutch translation) an unhappy wife decides to disappear from the face of the earth and her family only discovers why after twelve years. And in the psychological thriller Bitter Orange (2018) all the main characters seem to carry a secret with them. Also in restless ground (shortlisted for the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021) the lives of the main characters are overshadowed by secrets.
The story begins with the sudden death of Dot Seeder, mother of 51-year-old twins Jeanie and Julius, both still living at home. The hermit trio lives in a dilapidated cottage in the isolated British countryside. They live on the produce from their vegetable garden and fruit trees and keep a few chickens. The house is cold and damp, the electricity has recently been cut, spring snow is peeping through the cracks. There is no car, central heating or TV; the outside world only reaches them by 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 deduce from the sporadic flashbacks. There is a log fire, 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 – catapults brother and sister into the evil outside world in one fell swoop. The twins get no time to mourn, but are confronted with sky-high funeral costs, red tape and meddling villagers. To make matters worse, Dot is indebted to the Rawsons, the wealthy landowners of the nearby manor farm. The children are stunned: to their knowledge there was ‘an agreement’ that after their father’s death – he worked on the land – the family could continue to live in the house free of charge.
It sets in motion the inevitable: the twins are evicted, an event that not only disrupts their symbiotic relationship, but ultimately casts 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 potato crops failed and half Europe lived in deep poverty, so cruel, dark and hopeless is the setting in Restless ground. Instead, Claire Fuller portrays 21st-century poor, who are becoming more and 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 make it – until there is a hitch, in the form of illness, divorce or death.
The daily fight that the brother and sister have, or rather undergo, after the brutal eviction, is painfully palpable. When Julius discovers an abandoned caravan in the woods, they move into it. Jeanie tries “not to think about what it will be like in winter: without heating, with the outside latrine, the mud, the wetness.” 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, hoping that the things will not be stolen. In the hospital, where Julius ends up at the right time, she gobbles up the leftovers of cold fries that people leave on their trays. She smells herself.
But the most poignant part is that little by little it becomes clear that Dot was not who they thought she was. And even if it ends restless ground in a sense on a hopeful note, what lingers is the haunting message that ‘our story’ is largely dependent on what we are told, or on what we tell ourselves. Fuller expresses this disturbing feeling in the passage where a minor character recalls 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 that I remembered.’
And so in the end nothing is what it seems, we ourselves are not who we thought we were. Claire Fuller has in restless ground the ground on which the cottage stands has been 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: restless ground. Translated from English by Mieke Prins. Publisher Mosaic; 320 pages; €22.99.