My right hand started in the foothills, white and black notes rolling over each other as the piece climbed. And whilst it climbed, I sang. Sharps and naturals flowing under my fingers and out of my mouth. The need to breathe was frustrating. I had to gulp air even when there was no pause in the music. […] I came to understand Ute’s green notes – when to be steady and which fingers she had used for the most difficult sections. I liked to think they were messages written for me to find, in the middle of a forest on a piano that made no sound.
What I loved about this book was its sense of place: it takes a landscape in South Germany which I felt as if I could easily have hiked through, and explores it in minute detail. This small area of hillside is a whole world for Peggy, the book’s narrator-protagonist, and she is proud to know every inch of it.
But just as the space Peggy inhabits is only a tiny fragment of the physical world, her reality is also a carefully edited and limited version of the truth: her survivalist father abducted her when she was a child and effectively imprisoned her in a hut in the woods, but she finds ways of renaming and reshaping these facts to make them bearable. The life she lives is full of beauty and imaginative power, especially in the sections when she learns to play the piano without an instrument, using only her hands and the notes her father teaches her. It is easy to believe that her return to the ‘real world’ would be fraught with confusion and a sense of loss: at one point, Peggy stares at the array of food in a typical modern kitchen and can’t imagine how it can all be necessary.
Claire Fuller makes an interesting decision to let the reader know more than Peggy does, at least initially: as a child, Peggy believes that the world really ends just beyond the hills which surround the hut, but we know this isn’t the case. This distances us from her, and most importantly, it means that we never share her trust in her father, let alone her love for him. A part of me would have preferred to experience Peggy’s realisations together with her, and see her father through her eyes. Instead, Fuller withholds other information from us about Peggy’s relationship with her father – which feels a bit manipulative and makes the ending of the novel veer towards melodrama.
However, the two alternating timeframes (Peggy’s childhood in the woods, and her life back in England after escaping) do have advantages: in particular, they allow us to get to know Peggy’s mother gradually. I liked the subtlety of her strength and self-sufficiency, and the fact that her love for her daughter combines with a certain kind of emotional distance.
Note: My sister found this novel at our local bookshop, Keeble Antiques: I think she asked for a book by a new female writer. It turned out to be a great recommendation – thanks, Clive Keeble! (The website makes it look as if the shop only has antique books, but it stocks recent releases too.)