The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney….
The worries of seventy years – the money, the infidelity, the small deceits – are cut away, and when she looks at her hand she can no longer tell where she ends and dog begins. They are one substance, enormous and free, as is the sofa, the stone floor, the walls, the cottage that, the snow, the sky. Everything connected.Unsettled Ground
The book starts with a death: Dot, an elderly woman who lives in a farm cottage with her 51 year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius. Dot has brought them up away from the rest of the world; after their father died and they find out Jeanie has a heart condition, they have been kept safe within the walls of the cottage. Jeanie and Dot grow their food, sometimes selling vegetables to make some money, while Julius tries to find farm work where he can. They live an idyllic life together, with no television or mobile phones, and limited interaction with others. When Dot dies, Jeanie and Julius’ lives are turned upside down. The struggle to make ends meet becomes much harder as they soon learn that the cottage, which they believed they lived in rent-free, is owing rent to the farmer who owns it and soon they will be evicted. The more they try to find out, the more secrets they find they have to uncover. Unsettled Ground is a heart-breaking exploration of grief, family bonds, betrayal and hope.
Jeanie is past the farmhouse, cycling faster than she knows she should, the trailer rattling along behind. Anything could happen: she could fly over the handlebars or the animal in her heart might burst out, but right now she doesn’t give a monkey’s.Unsettled Ground
When Jeanie and Julius are in the local village people look at them differently and treat them as though they are odd. Similar to one of Claire Fuller’s other novels, Our Endless Numbered Days, she explores what it is like to be different and to be on the outside of society looking in. In Our Endless Numbered Days, a young girl is taken from her family home by her father, an obsessive ‘survivalist,’ to live in a hut in the woods, telling her that the rest of the world has been destroyed and they are the only two left. In both books we run away from modern life which is shown to be so very entangling, cruel and fake. There is a moment in Unsettled Ground where Jeanie watches another character make her dinner using a jar of pasta sauce and when she suggests using fresh vegetables she is told no. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave it all behind and live a simpler existence where you grow your own food and your evening entertainment comes from your own family making music? But then we see how devastatingly hard it is. In Unsettled Ground everything is a struggle: there’s never enough money to buy the things they need, people take advantage of them, and there’s not enough work. What will they do when they lose their home and don’t have any savings or even a bank account?
When Julius gets home, again there is no tea cooking and no hot water on to boil for his wash. Jeanie is sitting in the same chair as yesterday, head down over her guitar, playing. Only (the dog) looks up to great him. This time, rather than the surge of sympathy and sorrow he felt yesterday, he has a burning irritation that she hasn’t done anything with her day while he’s been working, earning money. Why is it she hasn’t ever had a job?Unsettled Ground
It’s a beautifully written book that slowly depicts the twins’ lives and does, at points, definitely leave you feeling unsettled. There’s also lots to think about how society treats people who don’t fit ‘the norm’ and the cruelty that can be unleashed. Claire Fuller so devastatingly describes the poverty and the harshness of the twins’ world, but hope can be found in the determination that Jeanie and Julius have to try and move forwards to stay together and look after each other.
I’m now off to track down Claire’s other two novels Blood Orange and Swimming Lessons because something tells me they are also going to be very good.