I learned of this book via this review by Kristin Kraves Books. I liked the sound of this book so I entered, and won, copy of this book in a giveaway either on Gooodreads of Twitter. It may not seem at nature book at first glance–well, aside from the cover, but nature is a big part of the story. It is from her garden and her knowledge of the land that Jeannie gets her strength, and earns her living. Claire Fuller paints a vivid picture with her prose of Jeanie’s garden and of the landscape in general, so I’m including it in this readathon.
“The garden slopes gradually uphill so that it is possible to sit on the bench at the top and look out over the rich brown beds and the plants, to the apple and cherry trees behind the old dairy, and onwards to the track and the beech wood beyond. Rosemary and thyme grow close to they house, lovage and angelica, and in the summer, basil and tarragon. Up against the western boundary is the fruit cage, filled with raspberry canes, blackcurrant bushes, and goose berries.” (p. 45-46)
Jeanie and Julius are 51 year old brother-sister twins, living a nearly off-grid life in a falling-down cottage on the estate of local gentry. When their elderly mother dies, they face the dominoes of their life falling and leaving them nearly leveled. What causes the first domino falling is shrouded in the mysterious life of their late mother and her dealings with the owner of the estate.
Never having lived apart, kept together by their odd, manipulative mother, but Jeanie and Julius are sustained and buoyed by the folk music they play–and that they played as children with their late parents. That so many of the songs are dark doesn’t seem to matter–they play and sing and are renewed.
When things get out of hand and their lives are changed forever making one sibling rethink proposed independence and the other return to the rhythms of caring that marked their previous life, discoveries happen that shift their world in yet another new way.
“At the end of September…the sun shines for more than a week. It crisps the topsoil and hardens the skins of the harvested squash: Crown Prince and Sweet Dumpling strung like heavy washing on a length of rope between two posts. The light bleaches the wooden planks laid between the vegetable beds and ripens the heads of the couch grass which has burrowed its white fingers under the fencing. The sun turns the tomatoes a deep red, stretching the skins until they split, while its heat dries out the cottage thatch and drives the mice and insects further in. searching for damp shade.” (p. 301).
This was an incredibly emotional story to read. In a way, though my life is very much on-grid, it was “by the grace…” for like too many in my generation I lack enough savings to protect myself. That was the personal emotional track. The public emotional track kept saying, “Wait, doesn’t the UK have a safety net [Or did Thatcher truly gut it?].” Happily, that was answered later in the book.
I thought of all the ways Jeanie was kept down, all the things that were out-of-her control and yet she never stayed angry or depressed. She worked in her garden, she sang, she bicycled to here and there and worked through it. Even when her nearest and dearest loves were both threatened, she kept putting one foot in front of another. When she had reason for outrage and bitterness she was no Pollyanna, but she only gave short vent to her anger, frustration, and regrets. That was inspiring. In that way she reminded me of a one or two ladies I know from Sunday School who took what life handed out, took those things they could not control and did control the one thing possible: their own outlook on the situation. Jeanie did not let anything life threw at her “ruin” her. Like her garden each Spring, Jeannie’s hope came back, her strength renewed, and she went on. Faith and hope personified.
While this was a hard book to read in large doses, I finally reached the apex of the story and could not put it down. I raced through the last 70 or so pages–it gripped me so tightly! Unsettled Ground is currently shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction–and deservedly so.
Unsettled Ground: A Novel by Claire Fuller
Another book on the shortlist for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction that I enjoyed was Piranesi by Susanna Clark. (Click the highlighted title to read my review)