"Since Dot has been in the parlour, the feel of the cottage is different, the air denser, her and her brother's actions slower, as though they were moving through smoke, feeling their way with their hands outstretched in a house that was once familiar. They are quieter when they're in opposite ends of the cottage: neither of them call to the other from a different room or let a door slam."
Claire Fuller's Unsettled Ground has won the 2021 Costa Novel Award this January.
A cross between Michelle Gallen's Big Girl, Small Town and Reginald Arkell's Old Herbaceous, this charming story of a brother and sister trying to eke out an existence in an isolated Wiltshire Village really resonated with me.
After the death of their mother, a well-respected woman in thir small community, Jeannie and Julius Seeder find they are faced with insurmountable debt. The title in this story refers not only to the Seeder family's way of living - cultivating vegetables - on the land, but the fact that they are left with little choice but to bury their old mum, Dot, in the garden. What would you do if you couldn't afford burial?
Despite the dark theme, the story is full of light moments. The theme of music lilts through this bucolic book; the twins play folk music: Jeannie on her guitar, Julius playing his fiddle despite the gap left without Dot's Banjo. (I felt this when I saw Roger Waters without David Gilmour).
Even in these circumstances there are plenty of chuckles. Take Julius' name, for instance - rhymes with Caesar? Lol. Then there are his attempts at courting the voluptuous Shelley Swift. Fuller's turn of phrase in her observations of the supporting characters in this olde worlde village are funny too. Take this scene:
" 'Heard about your mum.' Jenks, a scrawny Scotsman, whom Julius has rarely seen out of the public bar of the Plough, tips his glass toward his mouth and Julius sees his top lip reach out to the beer like a snail feeling its way. 'What a bummer,' Jenks says when he's swallowed."
This beautifully written, lilting story holds both poignancy and a dark undercurrent. After suffering from rheumatic fever as a child, Jeannie has a heart condition - variously described as an animal in her chest, fighting to get out - which has affected her schooling, and ability to read and write. Julius is so terrified of anything with engines, he can't ride in a vehicle without bringing up his breakfast.
Drawing parallels with Charity Norman's character Sam, in The Secrets of Strangers, Fuller's protagonists lost their father, Frank, at an early age - an event horrific enough to scar them both for life.
What happened to Frank? Who is responsible? And what has happened to their unspoken agreement with the wealthy landowner who has let them live on his land all this time? The plot thickens like tomato stalks reaching into summer.