Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

J. L. Harland • January 21st, 2022

The cover of Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller is an unusual, moving and uplifting story, whose rural setting offers lyricism and a deep connection with the natural world.

The title ‘Unsettled Ground’ at the outset speaks both of the story’s conflict and its setting. It also foreshadows the unsettling effect the story may have on the reader. Set in the country and written in the present tense, the story concerns middle-aged twins, Jeanie and Julius, whose mother, Dot, dies at the beginning of the book. We follow three points of view in this third person narrative - beginning with Dot in the moments before her death and then moving between the twins, although mainly narrated through the eyes of Jeanie.

The snow in April at the beginning of the novel is both poetic and precise in its description of the rural setting, while also being purposeful in creating a vivid sense of the characters and their lives. We are given an increasing, almost surreal, sense of how ordinary, to the twins, their day-to-day life is, while to an outsider theirs is a most unusual existence.

Jeanie, a 51-year-old woman, shares a bed with her mother. She missed too much school due to ill health and being kept home, so has not learned to read and write. Shopping is a hugely stressful activity for her, both because of poverty and her illiteracy. Julius is slightly more socialised, as he leaves the cottage to do odd jobs and casual work. The family survive on what he can earn and a small income from the produce grown in the garden. They live on the fringes of society, independent of state aid, poor and proud. The poverty in a rural setting is drawn with precision and sympathy. Early on, a problem the twins face is how to bury their mother when they have no money. Then it seems they will be evicted from the cottage; and they have no resources to draw on.

But this lyrical story also hides surprises and secrets; remaining in the mind after reading. The setting and characters are depicted in gorgeous detail, in ways that are reminiscent of Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie or of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

Experiences of grinding poverty, scrabbling for small change to make difficult decisions between food and other necessities, the vulnerability of those with little education, life on the outside of mainstream society are thought provoking topics, handled sensitively and delicately with honesty but also optimism.

In an interview on Front Row, Claire Fuller said she discovers characters as she writes, not planning the overall structure or scenes beforehand, and the novel evokes a strong sense of the unforeseen turns life can take. There is sadness at missed opportunities and the accidents of life, but the story shows the potential of people to change and to help each other. The ending is both surprising and hopeful.

Unsettled Ground, published by Penguin, is Claire Fuller’s fourth novel.  Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021, it was winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021.

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