Our Endless Summer Days by Claire Fuller is a strange and haunting hybrid hat combines the outdoor adventures of Roughing It in the Bush with a psychological thriller. You know something bad happens, but you don’t know what. Much is hidden and our narrator is only a child when the story begins.
Ute, James and Peggy were not your typical family. Ute was a world-class pianist whose wealth freed James to care for their eight-year old daughter the few times she traveled. James was a bit of a prepper survivalist, though they called it “retreater” in 1970s London. He and his retreatist friends loved to chat and speculate and argue about the end times and how to prepare.
James was not the most responsible father, keeping Peggy home from school so they could play and practice retreater skills in the back yard, for example. Then one day, James gets a call while Ute is a way and clearly something important and urgent was relayed on that call. James gathers his things, having Peggy gather hers as he has drilled her in so many times over the years. They fly to Germany and hike several days into the forest, their goal “Die Hutte” a retreater refuge that one of James’s friends had mentioned. It’s not exactly the glorious retreat they expected and after a big storm, Peggy is ready to head home, but James tells her that Ute, her mother is dead and all of the world has been destroyed in that storm.
But we know this is not true, we know this is not a tale of post-apocalyptic survival because the first chapter begins in her mother’s house nine years later. We have two narratives then, the 1975 post-apocalyptic survival in the wild and the 1985 restoration to society and coming to understand what happened during those nine years.
Most of the story lingers on that first year, when James and Peggy, whom her dad took to calling Punzel thanks to her long, matted hair that she tried to plait. The lore and the skills of living off the land sometimes make it seem like an idyll, though when winter hunger eats away at their spirit and substance, the romance is lost. James is a loving father, who creates imaginative stories and delightful games to entrance his daughter. He even builds s soundless piano ofr her to learn to play, a feat of imagination that was as lovely as it was worrisome and foolish as the time spent on that would have been better spent stocking up for the winter.
Obviously other people have used the hut, the name Reuben is carved into one of the walls. But no one comes for many years. Why would they? The entire world has been destroyed. Then, after many years, she sees a pair of shoes, shoes on the feet of a stranger walking by her hideout in the woods. The role this stranger plays in her return to the world is shocking and the surprises keep coming.
I enjoyed Our Endless Numbered Days or maybe more accurately I was engrossed in the story. I loved the dismantling of the back to nature mythology. Living many years without running water, that stuff has no romance for me and there was something satisfying about draining every bit of the romance away. I could not thoroughly enjoy the fun and good times Peggy had with her father since I knew, thanks to the first chapter that her mother was alive, so obviously worried and missing her.
The sense of place in this book is powerful. It was hot and muggy when I was reading this, but I felt a chill on my back during the storm. The description of crossing the river was harrowing. The hardships were made very clear, but the beauty and magic of the forest was as well. Peggy and her father were well-developed characters, complex and surprising. The fact that our narrator Peggy is unreliable makes sense, living in this false world her father constructed and eating an unbalanced diet that lacked nutrients, she has understandable memory blanks. Ute is more in the background, so happy to have her daughter home, but a bit unknowable.
In the end, things come to light, things that help explain why James fled with Peggy and why Peggy was so lucky to find Reuben when she did. This is not the happiest story in the world, but it is moving, fascinating and beautifully written.