Every small town (and every neighborhood in every city) has its oddballs, the people who live on the fringes, a little out of step with everyone else. Fairy tales sometimes cast them as witches, or as beautiful young royals cursed to live as beasts. Children’s books often redeem them with some lesson about how outsiders are just like everyone else, despite their strange appearances or ramshackle houses or mysterious actions.
But how often, in our stories, are oddballs allowed to remain exactly who they are? How often do they take center stage as main characters and reorient our view of what is “normal”? How often are such characters given rich, complex, and interior lives, complete with sorrows, talents, opinions, and flaws? Claire Fuller‘s new novel, Unsettled Ground, does just that.
The opening pages of the novel are chock full of glorious descriptive language. It’s late April in an English village and unseasonal snow is falling on a cottage: “It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup.” Such gorgeous, specific descriptions abound throughout the book.
Dot, a 70-year-old woman, dies in the first chapter, and the rest of the novel is concerned with her twin children who are 51. These twins, Jeanie and Julius, have lived all their lives in this cottage on the outskirts of the village, Inkbourne, with their mother. Why are they still living at home? Why did they never leave? These are the first questions readers will likely have, and over the course of the book, they will discover a multitude of answers, some of which are hinted at in the opening pages alongside secrets that Dot has taken with her to her grave.
Jeanie and Julius, these fully-grown adults living with their mother, are clearly considered odd in the village. Their cottage doesn’t have a phone or a television or a computer, although it does have a sizeable garden that Jeanie and Dot spent their years tending to, while Julius picked up odd jobs. His cellphone is the only concession to modern technology, but it’s an ancient kind that needs to be reloaded with credit every once in a while, and he only has it so that employers can call him. Other oddities: the family’s old-fashioned clothes, Dot’s refusal to receive government assistance, the family’s lack of a bank account, the twins’ antipathy toward their farmer neighbor on whose land the cottage sits, and the fact that neither Jeanie nor Julius have ever seemed to have any real friends, let alone romantic relationships.
The twins are not unaware of their difference. As they begin to deal with the bureaucracy of death — the doctor that needs to declare the death, forms that need filling out, certificates necessary for burial, etc. — Dot’s best friend, Bridget, as well as other community members keep asking about a wake. Jeanie doesn’t want one, disgusted by the “thought of people milling about the kitchen, the babble of them, the way they would stare at her and Julius: pitying the weirdos who still lived with their mother at age fifty-one.”
New hardships befall Jeanie and Julius immediately after Dot’s death. It starts with money; they haven’t got any. Dot had always told them the cottage was theirs, rent-free, forever, in exchange for their silence regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of their father when they were 12. But now, suddenly, they learn they owe rent on it, that their mother appears to have been secretly paying rent for years. They also learn she was sick before she died, which she never mentioned to them, and that she borrowed money from Bridget’s husband, which they now have to pay back.
Soon, because they haven’t paid their electricity bill, the power is shut off. Days later, they’re threatened with eviction. Meanwhile, Jeanie has known since she was a child that she has a heart condition due to a bout of rheumatic fever, and so has never had a job, and Julius can’t work too far away because any extended amount of time in a moving vehicle makes him violently ill. How are they to survive?
That the twins are resilient is clear early on, as they stoically face their mother’s death. But it’s their soft spots, their desires and wishes, their memories, and their musical talent (Julius plays fiddle, Jeanie the guitar, and Dot had played banjo) that slowly unfold throughout the narrative, giving readers glimpses at just how rich people’s lives can be even when they’re small, secluded, and private.
Unsettled Ground is a terribly beautiful book, and although its premise may seem quiet, it is full of dramatic twists and turns right up until its moving, beautiful end.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother’s Lovers.