Axes and Utes: Tension and Narrative Unreliability in Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days

Techniques tracked:
-manipulating tension: when knowing what is going to happen makes you want to know how it happened
-how to pull off plot twists with an unreliable narrator

oend

The structure of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days is relatively straightforward, yet highly effective. We begin in London in November of 1985, when our first-person narrator, seventeen-year-old Peggy, cuts her father’s image from the last photograph that remains of him. The second sentence does an amazing amount of work: “He didn’t look like a liar.” The plot of the novel will be how Peggy comes to find out her father is a liar, while also revealing Peggy herself to be one, the quintessential unreliable narrator.

The second chapter takes us back nine years, to when this business of her father being a liar must have started. Peggy describes the survivalist club her father is a part of; he was particularly close with a man named Oliver Hannington. The bulk of the book’s chapters will be dedicated to unspooling this past narrative; Fuller establishes a pattern of three chapters in the past then one in the present, three in the past, one in the present, etc. In the past, while Peggy’s German mother Ute, a pianist, is away touring, her father has a fight with Oliver Hannington and then absconds with Peggy to a cabin deep in the woods, far from the reaches of civilization or of any other human being. While the chronic tension is how Peggy figured out her father is a liar, which she’s figured out before the novel’s starting point in 1985, the acute tension is her figuring out what drove him to abscond with her to the forest in the first place, which she’s piecing together in the novel’s present, after she’s returned.

In the chapters that recount Peggy’s years in the cabin, die Hütte, with her father, he tells her that all of civilization, including her mother, has been destroyed, and that they’re the last two people on earth. When Peggy eventually meets a man named Reuben in the forest, this theory is challenged, but Peggy believes Reuben is merely a survivor like she and her father. As her father becomes increasingly unhinged–most directly evidenced by his calling Peggy “Ute,” his wife’s name–Peggy spends more and more time with Reuben. He’s incredulous when she tells him of her father’s plan to kill them both with poison mushrooms, more so of her own seeming willingness to participate in the plan because she’s promised her father to than with the plan itself. The morning they’re supposed to eat the mushrooms, Reuben sneaks into the cabin and spirits Peggy away, and they consummate their relationship physically for the first (and only) time. Forced to return to the cabin for Peggy’s shoes, Reuben ends up killing her father with their axe after her father slices part of her ear off with a knife for breaking her promise. Reuben then abandons Peggy to walk for several days until she stumbles on a village, though this is still not enough for her to figure out her father’s lied.

In the present thread, Peggy’s been home for two months. She has a little brother, Oskar, she didn’t know about who was born not long after she left. She hears about how her mother dealt with her absence and notes her mother’s distress upon learning her father fought with Oliver Hannington right before they left. She learns that the one piece of music her father took with them, the one he taught her to play piano with on one he made her out of wood (her mother had always refused to teach her to play because their home piano was too nice for beginners), was the same music her mother played during the concert where she first met him, when he was serving as her page-turner. Eventually, we learn that Peggy’s pregnant. After we’ve gotten the climax in the past thread of how her father died–as well as the moment she was in the hospital and realized everyone there wasn’t survivors, but that her father had lied–her mother shows her the note her father left before he took her into the woods, which says he’s keeping Peggy while Ute can keep “the other one.” Her mother admits she didn’t know if Peggy’s brother was Oliver’s or Peggy’s father’s when she became pregnant, and her telling Peggy’s father this was why he left. Peggy’s father is redeemed somewhat, as both parents are made complicit in his crime.

Climaxes in past and present accounted for, the book could have ended there and still been damn good, but there’s a twist: right after Peggy’s mother makes her climactic reveal about Oliver, she gets a call informing her that Peggy must have made Reuben up. The only fingerprints on the axe that killed her father are hers; none of the evidence they should be able to trace Reuben by (a blue hat left behind) is there. Described so baldly, the twist might sound either predictable or far-fetched, but in the course of the book, the revelation not only makes perfect sense, but adds an even deeper sinister undercurrent to what we’ve read thus far–this means, for one thing, that Peggy is pregnant with her own father’s baby.

At the end, I wasn’t exasperated with Peggy’s unreliability and the fact that so much of what I’d read and understood to be happening had not, in fact, literally happened, because it made perfect sense that her psyche hadn’t been able to process it. This manifestation of how incredibly stressful her situation was made me feel even sorrier for her. While the version of things the reader gets is a lot less horrifying than what actually happens to her, becoming aware of it after the fact still deepens its horror, makes it far worse than if it had been described graphically in the moment. But Fuller also had to lay careful clues to pull this ending off without pissing off the reader.

The first clue(s) is the placement of Reuben’s appearances. It’s always in the aftermath of Peggy’s father doing something sinister, another step down the slope of his derangement, that Reuben appears. The first time she sees footprints is after her father starts muttering about Oliver Hannington and his lies about how fortified the cabin was (Oliver H sends them to that cabin both directly, by telling her father about it, and indirectly, by sleeping with Ute). Reuben’s and Peggy’s first face-to-face meeting comes right after Peggy tries to take a spyglass that her father then strikes her in the head with, drawing blood that Reuben then washes away. It seems the more her father deteriorates mentally, the more Reuben develops physically (they finally have sex the morning Peggy’s father is trying to kill her).

Another big clue is the axe. The first time an axe is mentioned, Peggy is, in the present thread, considering what things her little brother might or might not know, not having had a father:

He was almost as tall as me, but so young. I was still shocked, every time I looked at him, to think I was exactly his age when my father and I left this house. While Ute was ladling porridge, made with water—the way I liked it—I wondered whether the Scouts had taught Oskar how to light a fire without matches, or how to catch squirrels by their necks, or use an axe with one smooth, swift motion. Perhaps they were things he and I could discuss another day.

Then, when she actually first tries to use it:

On top of the pile of salvageable items was an axe. I considered it while putting the skinning knife in the pocket of my dungarees. The axe was long-handled and heavy-headed and, grasping it in two hands, I pulled it from the heap. Its shaft was polished from years of sweat and oily hands. I ran my thumb along the pitted edge of the blade without any idea of what the action meant. Attempting to skin the rabbit with a forbidden knife would get me into trouble, but my father had never warned me about using an axe.

I hefted the axe into the air, where it wobbled, deciding whether to tip me over backward, but my shoulders tilted and the axe took over, swinging itself forward with terrifying violence—taking me with it. I shut my eyes; the axe was in charge. With a life of its own, it cleaved the air and I felt the crunch as steel met flesh and bone, and it buried its blade into the earth with the downward force. It pulled me in its wake, my forehead slamming into the handle.

Tellingly, she injures herself trying to use it. That “without any idea of what the action meant” is definitely more eye-catching and resonant on second read, as is the idea of the axe having a life of its own. When her father tries to teach her to use the axe, she still does it with her eyes closed, but as time goes on, she gets the hang of it, in a passage that comes right after she’s tried to tell her father about Reuben, but he won’t listen:

I sat down on the bed, my news spoiled. After a moment’s thought, I clamped my lips together and went to the corner by the stove and picked up the axe. I carried it outside with the sharpening stone. I was powerful with the tool in my hands and angry enough with my father to use it. I stroked the blade with the stone until the sun caught its edge. I placed a small log on the block, as my father and I had done last autumn, and holding the axe shaft halfway down, I lifted it over my head and let its weight slam into the wood. The little log split clean in two.

She’s angry enough with her father to use it! And we see that at this point, she’s more than capable of doing so. There’s also her dream that pretty much encapsulates the past thread’s entire trajectory:

I dreamed of two people frozen to death in their single bed, locked together in the shape of a double S. When the spring sunshine crept under the door, the bodies defrosted and melted. An unknown man came upon the cabin, hacking his way in with an axe through the stems of a thorny rose which bound the door shut. I saw his hand, rough and hairy, reach out to pull back the sleeping bags, revealing faceless pulp, like the slippery guts of fish. I woke sweating and terrified at the image and the feeling I was left with, but even worse was the realization a few seconds later that no man would ever fight his way into die Hütte to find our decomposing bodies; there was no one left in the world but the two of us.

Another clue comes in the passage describing the night leading into the morning her father dies, after he’s been calling Peggy “Ute” again:

“It’s our last night,” [my father] said, and yanked on the covers so that they came free from under my body and he was able to climb in beside me.

I lay still with my arms straight down and my eyes shut, and thought about the view I had seen from the tree, how the land curved gracefully down to the river and up the other side. How the wintereyes and beech across the water did look perfect from far away, like the dark green heads of curly kale that I grew in the garden, complex and convoluted. And I thought about how all the bad things—the snake that ate the bird’s egg, the eagle that ripped the mouse into bloody shreds, the ants in the honey—were the necessary details in a world that would still be here after we were gone. After a time my father went back to his own bed and I heard his breathing change as he fell asleep. I lay awake in the dark for a long while, climbing the tree again, but without difficulty this time, and standing on the branch with my arms out. I dived off and a warm breeze caught me, and like the eagle I flew over the mountain ledges, the gribble, the butterfly heather, and the wintereyes.

“Punzel.” Reuben hissed my name in the dark. “Punzel!” his voice came again beside my ear.

This is the first passage where her father overtly tries to get in her bed, where the act is referenced; the reader reads it initially as Peggy distracting herself with other thoughts while he’s doing something bad to her, which is itself not literally described. It turns out, though, that where on first read the fantasy appeared to end, it actually didn’t.

In the end, I forgive Peggy for being unreliable, having come to understand her unreliability as a product of her father’s. While I hardly let her father off the hook, he is far from a purely evil villain. That he spends so much of the first summer making her wood piano that they almost starve to death that winter is the perfect encapsulation of the tragedy and ill-fatedness of his love. In the final lines of the book, Peggy seems to understand this as she takes a bath and remembers Reuben:

I slid into the tepid water, watching the very top of my belly rise above it like a tiny island. I closed my eyes and remembered the warm summer sun turning the tips of Reuben’s hair orange.

If Reuben was more developed the more her father was deranged, then he functions as a repository for her father’s good qualities as they leak out of him; Peggy mentally preserves them in a new form. In remembering Reuben like this, after she knows he wasn’t real, she’s really remembering the best side of her father; summer is, notably, die Hütte’s best season.

-SCR

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One thought on “Axes and Utes: Tension and Narrative Unreliability in Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days

  1. Pingback: A Sympathetic Nazi | the pva creative writing review

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