Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.