Book review : Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

I am certainly a little late to the party with this one but ‘wow’, what an absolute gem. This was chosen as a read for one of my book clubs, and I am so grateful it was. The novel had been languishing, undiscovered on my Kindle for weeks and I had clearly been missing something very special.

Before I go any further I must say a big ‘Thank you ‘ to Claire for kindly providing our group with some great ‘book club’ questions. It focused our discussions and gave us a great insight to this multilayered tale.

So what’s it all about? Well a brief synopsis is called for here because one of the joys of this novel is in it’s unravelling. An air of mystery is present from the beginning and pervades throughout, and there is no way I am spoiling anyone’s reading pleasure!!

We begin at the death bed of Frances Jellico. Triggered by repeated visits from the ‘vicar’ Frances is swapped by memories.

It her mind she is back in 1969. A long summer when Frances, recently released from a life of caring and drudgery after the death of her mother finds herself working in a crumbling country house. Tasked with cataloguing and researching the house’s horticultural architecture by it’s new American owner, she finds herself living alongside an intriguing couple Cara and Peter.

Cara is fiery, unstable and longing for Italy. Peter, there to catalogue the inside of the house, seems both drawn to and unsettled by his partner’s unpredictability.

Frances is certainly drawn to both Peter and Cara. Attraction to Peter pulls her close and Cara’s compelling stories seem easy to believe, however unlikely they maybe.

Parallels can quickly be drawn between the two women. Both have difficult relationships with domineering and seemly cruel mothers, both seem to worship fathers long since absent. The lack of parental guidance has all too clearly left it’s mark. Peter seems to take on the mantle of both lover and father figure for both women at various points. Parental chaos is a key underlying theme of the novel.

All three characters fall into a Bohemian and careless routine. Drinking and eating late into the night, pulling each other into strange confidences and conversations, making unlikely and misguided decisions. Decisions that will have terrifying consequences for all concerned.

The state of the house; that of faded grandeur and with an air of broken down convention, has a dramatic and far reaching effect on all three characters, but perhaps most markedly on Frances. Here we see a casting off of restraint. This rather uptight and cowed Woman steps into the light, casting off her Mother’s hand me down girdle and donning floating vintage gowns. Along with her clothing she sheds morality and normality, swept away by this heady new atmosphere and strange, remote setting.

Moreover the house seems to act as metaphor for the character’s lives. It reflects the jaded nature of their past but it too has a history is full of complexity and sorrow. The turmoil of the buildings mirrors the turmoil all the central characters seem to find themselves mired in.

For all of our characters are searching for a truth, a reason for a being, a deeper meaning to their existence. All protagonists have secrets, some more shocking than others. And all are trying to find a way to make peace with those secrets and reconcile themselves with decisions they have made.

At times it feels as those there may be supernatural forces at work within the house. Frances particularly experiences unexplained and unexpected events within her rather shabby sleeping quarters. Confusion and chaos increase throughout the novel, but is it real or imagined? Supernatural or a reflection of the state of someone’s happiness or guilt? Is it just easier make a glib reference to ghosts or even miracles, rather than confront an uncomfortable truth?

For be in no doubt, the narrators in this novel are nothing if not unreliable. Cara is feted as the obvious problem but slowly we come to question everyone’s reliability and integrity. Who, if anyone can we believe? What is Frances hiding? What of Peter’s past? For even the house has secrets that it won’t easily relinquish.

There is a pervading theme of seeking the truth, of spying on others, of listening at closed doors and only hearing part of a story. Characters in this novel are not in possession of the full facts, they can’t see the full picture and the consequences are dire. I promised no spoilers but Frances first discovery is a clear signpost for truth seeking and secrets in the most clandestine of ways!

Because from the start the reader is working through a fog of confusion. Where is Frances now? Who is this ‘Vicar’, and why is he bringing her back at the end of her life to a summer long ago?

As the story concludes ask yourself; are you sure of the truths you have acquired? Or do you need to spend a bit more time with Frances, Cara and Peter? Is there more to unravel in this rather complex web of ‘truth’?

Claire Fuller has created one of those delightful books that is so easy to read and utterly compelling, yet is multi layered and complex. One of those books that is just meant for discussion, that becomes even more vibrant and in this case, sinister with continued thought and probing.

It is a book ripe for rereading, with the promise of finding yet more hidden treasure.

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