“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off.” He calls her “Punzel,” a special shortening of “Rapunzel,” and swings her around to make her laugh. “Our days will be endless.”
Peggy Hillcoat is 8 years old when her father stops time—when he brings her to the isolated German mountains and declares the rest of the world destroyed. The date is August 20th, 1976.
Almost a decade later Peggy is back in England with her mother, Ute. The chapters alternate between the lost years at “die Hutte,” and Peggy’s painful return. The truth about what happened on that mountainside is like switching keys while playing piano—it changes the resonance and tone of the piece.
This is a beautiful novel. The writing is alive but subtle. Fuller slips around and between things, creating a world of imagined and implied connections and meanings. Peggy’s coming-of-age is both tender and terrifying. Young Peggy’s narration is straightforward. She speaks with the forthrightness of a child, sharing her hopes, fears, and struggles—recalling the ugly pain of that first, hungry winter, her loneliness, the slowly dawning realization that the rest of the world is gone.
Fuller doesn’t say that James Hillcoat is manic-depressive. Peggy remembers his lists though: “Often the words strayed over each other where he had written them in the dark, or they were packed together as though tussling for space in his night-time head.” These early lists are nothing compared with his later, frantic scribbling on the cabin wall, the music notes distorted by the grain of the wood and his urgency. Peggy recalls the way his projects, throwing himself into the creation of a piano, or his attempts to divert the river, make him elated and then defeated—brimming with cheer then overflowing with anger.
Fuller doesn’t say that Ute is unhappy, questioning her decision to abandon her career as an internationally lauded, classical pianist for the enigmatic, energetic, and much younger, James Hillcoat. She “tsks” her way through Peggy’s memories, and plays beautiful music on her piano, becoming an unsolvable puzzle.
James and his friends represent the “reatreater” movement that spread across the U.S. and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. “Retreaters” respond to the perceived threats against society as predicted by retreater Roberto Vacca in the 1960s.* They stockpile nonperishable food and supplies, equipment and supplies for growing food and purifying water. James makes his lists—tools, food items, household items. Yet no amount of listing can prepare him for the enormity of raising a child alone, in the woods—a child with only one shoe who misses her mother playing piano.
James feels scared, scared and angry and desperate to prove a point. The world is collapsing—he can see it, even if his wife and neighbors can’t. His world is crumbling. The Cold War casts a heavy pall on Britain in 1976. Public and private bomb shelters are considered normal and necessary. Classrooms air Duck and Cover movies. The increased inflation rates of the 1960s, and the 1973 oil crisis tolls public faith.*
The fear that James feels, and his extreme reaction, are almost justifiable. Almost simply because, from the vantage point of 2015, I can see clearly that the world does not end in the 1970s, Y2K does not cause a mass crash of society, and we catch Osama bin Ladin. Almost because, as Peggy slides into the bathtub and the full implications sink in, we see that sometimes the cost of survival is too high.
* Sources: http://retreater.askdefinebeta.com/