Book Review: Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

About The Book

What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back?

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

My Review

Claire Fuller’s previous novels, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange are some of my favourite books. Fuller has such a beautiful way of writing, it is descriptive yet eloquent, nuanced yet detailed and so immersive that I end up falling deeply in love with both her books and her characters. Unsettled Ground, her latest novel has recently been deservedly longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I am thrilled at the recognition for this incredible writer and this remarkable book.

Unsettled Ground opens with the death of Dot, who lived in a remote farmhouse with her twins, Jeanie and Julius leaving them bereft and alone. They are fifty one and have spent their lives with their mother, largely living in poverty, selling the fruit and vegetables they grow to a local shop and living in isolation. They scrape a living but the three were seemingly happy in their dilapidated cottage with an outside toilet, rubbing along together and living in their own little world.

The book is set in the present but there is a timeless quality to the prose – in fact if it wasn’t for the mention of mobile phones it could have been set any time over the past forty years or so. This timelessness reflects life in the farm house where Dot, Julius and Jeanie have lived for the past four decades, alone since their father died suddenly, a traumatic event which has had long term repercussions for the family and their lives.

As Jeanie and Julius deal with the shock and their grief over the death of their mother, the realities of their situation become apparent. They don’t know how to go about dealing with a sudden death and what the formalities and legalities are. For cloistered Jeanie the confusion is further compounded by her inability to read and write. Dot’s death sets in motion events which throw their plight into sharp relief. They come to realise that their mother was the holder of many secrets, some which have been kept for decades, some which directly impact them and some which cause their situation to become dire.

Although this is a book about grief and secrets, it is also a book about people who fall through the cracks. People who live in busy communities but are in almost isolation. People who are perceived as being odd or a bit different and are avoided by other. It is fragile Jeanie who feels this the most, her world is very small; growing vegetables, feeding chickens, cooking pies, enveloping her dog with love and spending her days with her mother. The world outside is a scary place and my heart broke for her as she was pushed further and further outside of her comfort zone and into a world filled with unsurmountable tasks.

It is almost a coming of age novel, albeit featuring two adults in their fifties. They are quite childlike and innocent in some ways, unskilled in basic life skills and unable to make their way in the world. Yet, Jeanie, who has always felt and been told she is fragile and delicate, shows a backbone of steel and a bravery which surprises even herself. She is such a beautifully written character who it is difficult to dislike and I defy you not to root for her as she scrambles to make a life for her and her brother.

Against a backdrop of some gorgeous depictions of nature – the book opens with one of the most beautiful descriptions of snowfall I think I have ever read – these two people burrow their way out of the dark and closed life they have led and try to find some sunlight. It makes for heart-breaking reading with some passages being almost unbearable to read. But amongst the darkness there is light, and Fuller gradually reveals this to us, slowly banishing the shadows to reveal an elegant and compelling tale of love, resentment and triumph over adversity.

Where You Can Buy It

My thanks to Fig Tree for providing me with a copy of the book via Netgalley.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller is out today in hardcover and ebook.

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