Claire Fuller’s ‘Bitter Orange’ Is A Haunting, Cerebral Tale of Isolation

bitter-orange-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Claire Fuller‘s eerie new novel Bitter Orange comprises a heady mix of isolation, paranoia, guilt, and a hint of gothic when a troubled couple and a lonely, middle-aged woman are hired to survey the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Lyntons in the English countryside. The novel begins 20 years after the summer of 1969 and the events of the novel’s main narrative. Frances Jellico, a bookish spinster, recalls this brief period from a hospital bed where she will soon die. The vicar who sits by her side knew Frances and the couple, Cara and Peter, during that time. He seeks answers to a question that develops early in the novel: Why did Frances do it?

From her attic room at Lyntons, Frances initially dives into her work. She spent years caring for her ailing mother after her father left. Her mother’s recent death gives her a newfound freedom. But when Frances meets Cara and Peter, she becomes enmeshed in their mysterious world. For Cara, Frances is a person with whom she can share the story of her past without the fear of Peter’s judgment. She is beautiful and close to nature as well as capricious and superstitious — an Irish woman from a Protestant family raised Catholic who believes she became pregnant through divine intervention. Frances listens closely to the story of how she met Peter and this holy child with fascination. She knows it cannot be true — that details of Cara’s story must be fabricated. But it enthralls her.

Peter, on the other hand, understands Frances as a practical woman and seems to be drawn to what he sees as stability. He asks her to keep an eye out for Cara who he suggests is mentally unable due to the loss of her baby. He resents her superstitions, her wild storytelling, and her desire for more than he can give. He will not divorce the wife who gets most of his money, so he and Cara are left in limbo, traveling from place to place.

Frances relishes the approval and attention she receives from both of them. But the cracks in the idyll they’ve made for themselves slowly expand, morphing their friendship into something subtly malignant. Fuller incorporates elements of suspense and mystery with the gothic dread that inherent to the English manor house. It is the house’s presence as its own character that drives the tension between the trio. Sinister objects, glimpses of faces in windows, and the air of decrepitude that surrounds them moves the narrative arch to its horrific ending.

A novel of this nature — one that rests upon the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator as she attempts to remember and navigate the threads of a tenuous, complex relationship — would likely have fallen flat in the hands of a writer less in command of this story. Fuller uses the full scope of her ability in to weave a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the decay of paradise, in the process making it a story that fits squarely into the era it portrays while also acting as an outlier with its sinister overtones.

Just as they say the revolutionary summer of 1969 ended with the murder of Sharon Tate, so too does Frances Jellico’s brief, happy summer.

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