A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.
I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.
Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.
“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”
“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
“Time devours all things: love and murder and secrets.”
I loved Martine Bailey’s first novel, last year’s An Appetite for Violets. My description of that one – “lively, well-researched historical fiction, seasoned with mystery and culinary tradition” – is apt here, although this doesn’t quite live up to Bailey’s debut. As in Violets, the setting is the English Midlands in the late eighteenth century, and one of the main characters is a cook at a grand home. However, whereas cook Biddy Leigh herself was the narrator of Violets, through journal entries, here the first-person perspective is that of the mistress of Delafosse Hall (in Greaves, Lancashire), Grace Croxon.
After being dissuaded from making an unfortunate love match, Grace has been pressed into marriage with Michael Croxon, a brooding, almost possessed character. It soon becomes clear that his affections lie elsewhere and he has married Grace for her money, which will fund his ill-fated attempt to set up a mill. My favorite section of the book is the middle, in which Grace is like the Gothic heroine trapped in a spooky house with a distant husband and all kinds of strange goings-on that she doesn’t understand. She reminded me most of the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
At the same time as Grace is trying to figure out what is happening at Delafosse, we also learn the surprising story of how Peg Blissett came to be the Croxons’ new cook. Under another name, she suffered tremendous trials, including transportation to Australia and a dramatic escape to live with New Zealand natives. She also lost her true love, Jack, and on her return to England determines to have her revenge on the man responsible for sending her to prison.
It takes a while to figure out how Peg’s story ties in with Grace and Michael’s, and the plot gets very melodramatic towards the end, with hints of the Victorian sensation novel, but overall it’s a satisfying and atmospheric tale. It’s mostly in comparison with Violets that I locate this book’s weaknesses: a first-person narrative from Peg would have been more interesting, as well as fairer to her own story (and she would seem less like a pantomime villainess towards the end); and the date and place information plus recipes heading each section feel largely unnecessary, whereas they were integral to the previous book.
I kept getting a funny feeling as I was reading that this book must have been written first and later revised to capitalize on the success of Violets, which might account for the way that the culinary theme seems slightly shoehorned in here. Still, Bailey comes up with memorable characters and plots, with the kinds of twists and turns that keep you wondering where it will all lead. I hope that her third novel will break new ground rather than just repeating themes and structures she’s used before.
I was delighted to win a free copy through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.