Fiction Bitter Orange
Claire Fuller (Fig Tree, £14.99)
Set in hyper-bucolic Hampshire parkland, Lyntons is a near-derelict, neo-classical mansion replete, according to the sales particulars, with ‘Ornamental Lake, Fountain, Parterre, Walled Kitchen Garden, Classical Bridge, Orangery of Outstanding Design, Stable Block, Model Dairy, ice House, Grotto, Mausoleum, Sundry Follies inc. Obelisk, etc’. Caveat emptor, i add.
it’s summer 1969 and dowdy Frances Jellico has been commissioned by the house’s absentee American buyer to prepare a report on its garden architecture. Observant but blind, astute yet obtuse, Frances has spent her first four decades in claustrophobic thrall to a mother whose death hangs heavy.
She dreams of finding a hitherto undocumented Palladian bridge and, in anticipation, visits the British Museum library to consult Pevsner plus, naturally, ‘the relevant issues of Country Life’. the former is ‘dismissive’, the latter yields ‘only a few dull photographs’. As events unfold, however, nothing could have prepared her for the situation she inhabits unless, of course, it’s of her own creation?
installed in an attic bedroom, Frances soon discovers that she shares Lyntons with Peter, handsome, close in age and charged with making an inventory of contents, and Cara, his bewitching inamorata. She also discovers that she can share their privacy via a ‘Judas hole’ in her floor, their ceiling.
this beautiful, bickering couple intrigue Frances and invade her fertile imagination. invitations to share their meals, their fragile histories and their singular responses to what becomes an increasingly Gothic microcosm persuade her of an intimacy for which she proves dangerously unfit.
With shades of Brideshead and Manderley, Claire Fuller’s atmospheric third novel plays a satisfyingly unpredictable game with reader expectations. Prepare to be meticulously unsettled and horribly enthralled. Caroline Jackson