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