WEB OF MYS­TERY

BIT­TER OR­ANGE, BY CLAIRE FULLER, IS A PAGE-TURNER THAT EVOKES LIT­ER­ARY THRILLERS OF THE PAST

The Gulf Today - Panorama - - FRONT PAGE - By Lucy Sc­holes

Bit­ter Or­ange, Claire Fuller’s heady, claus­tro­pho­bic third novel, makes for per­fect sum­mer read­ing. Frances, the story’s nar­ra­tor is an el­derly woman. Ly­ing in her sickbed, her mind is wan­der­ing: “My wast­ing dis­ease has eaten away more than flesh: it has taken any mem­ory of last week as well as the names and ti­tles I was told about an hour ago,” she be­moans, “but it is kind enough to leave the sum­mer of 1969 in­tact.”

This is the world to which we re­turn. Even then, Frances wasn’t ex­actly in the first flush of youth. At 39 years old, she knows what she looks like — “a mid­dle-aged woman rather thick around the mid­dle, hair grey­ing” — but in terms of life ex­pe­ri­ence, she’s lived an un­usu­ally nar­row and guile­less life. Un­til her mother’s re­cent death, the two were in­sep­a­ra­ble; Frances had lit­tle con­tact with oth­ers. Even the most com­mon­place of hu­man in­ter­ac­tions are a strug­gle for her.

“It was so hard to get it right, the way other peo­ple had con­ver­sa­tions, back and forth with no ef­fort. I won­dered, not for the first time, how it was done.” She’s missed out on things — friends, hus­bands, chil­dren: “I couldn’t imag­ine how they had come about.” As such, she’s an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor of a very spe­cific sort. Not, per­haps, de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing, but we’re aware that she’s an in­no­cent, ill pre­pared for the cru­el­ties and com­plex­i­ties of the big wide world.

Not that the set­ting of Bit­ter Or­ange could be de­scribed as such. Frances has come to Lyn­tons, a once grand but now ram­shackle house in the coun­try­side, to make a sur­vey of the gar­den ar­chi­tec­ture for its new owner, an ab­sen­tee Amer­i­can. Also in res­i­dence are a younger cou­ple,

Cara and Peter, “ex­otic and fan­tas­tic crea­ture(s).” Frances is “trans­fixed” by them. In that dreamy, other-worldly kind of way that only hap­pens dur­ing long hot sum­mers when the usual rules some­how don’t ap­ply, Frances be­comes en­tan­gled in Cara and Peter’s odd re­la­tion­ship, and the three drift to­gether to­wards a vi­o­lent, tragic dé­noue­ment. Bit­ter Or­ange is a novel steeped in a par­tic­u­lar English lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. On the one hand, the tra­jec­tory seems im­pos­si­bly in­evitable; on the other, Fuller’s twists left me reel­ing.

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