Title: Bitter Orange
Writer: Claire Fuller
Publishing House: Penguin Random UK
Date of Publication: August 2nd 2018
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Do our actions betray our nature?’’
The setting: a dilapidated mansion in the idyllic English countryside. The era: 1969, the most exciting time to be alive in recent History. The time when conventions and traditions are shuttered to make room for freedom and equality. Frances arrives in Hampshire to write a report on garden architecture on behalf of the new owner of the mansion. Her mental state is quite unstable since the death of her mother. Soon, she discovers that she’s not alone in Lyntons. A young couple, Cara and Peter, has arrived with a similar purpose of research. The three of them become friends and start what is seen by Frances as a riotous living. Reports are far from ready but the wine, the cigarettes, and all delicacies are in abundance. As are secrets, lies and weird noises in the night. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller is simply one of the best novels of the year.
‘’I discovered that in the early part of the morning a mist hovered in the hollows of the estate and the grass was wet with dew. There was a smell in the air of bonfires, the land already preparing for autumn.’’
Where to start without resorting to spoilers? There are so many beautiful sentences, paragraphs. The extract above is only a minuscule portion of the poetic, haunting writing, reflecting Frances’ s thoughts. She is our sole narrator, everything we see is what she sees. As a result, our perception is limited and the story unfolds like a China box whose contents are visible through blurry lens. The writing is atmospheric right from the start. The setting of the mansion brings the work of Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier to mind. The old church, the graveyard, the mausoleum, the enigmatic village. And then, the eerie feeling becomes more and more tense and sinister. Birds lying dead, footsteps, reflections on windows, rage that is about to burst through. The sultry summer days and nights are full of whispers and unuttered feelings.
(Image: Abandoned Explorer via https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/local-news/what-its-like-explore-abandoned-481762)
Apart from the setting, the story benefits from the characters. Frances will give you so much trouble. She is the definition of the doormat personality. Or is she? Her relationship with her mother has affected her to such an extent that she has no knowledge of the world, she is devoid of any substance. Her sentimental aspirations sound like those of an immature teenager, down to the hearty eyes and the flying unicorns. Strict family rules, religious upbringing and a distorted notion of duty have done their work well. And yet, Fuller succeeds in making her interesting and us invested in her story. Cara, on the other hand? I loved her so much! She is a whirlwind, a force of nature. Poor Frances cannot hold a candle to her. Cara’s belief in the traditions of her native Ireland gives her an even more mysterious aura as opposed to Frances’s old-school romantic phantasies. Both women are the epitome of the unreliable narrator in all its glory. Having said that, I must admit that I couldn’t stomach Frances and her melodramatic thoughts along with her self-pity. However, I understand that this attitude of hers was essential to the story. Between the two women, poor Peter is us trying to make some sense of the unexplainable world around him.
I can’t say more. There are so many twists and revelations. Grief, loss, love, obsession, madness. The characters, the house, the village. Everything is part of a complex, dark mystery and when a book has this effect on you, you know that it has succeeded. This is a perfect novel for discussion, a quality mystery. ‘’Quality’… a rare word these days…Just be cautious and do not expect to have all the answers laid out in front of you.
‘’Victor thinks that digging graves might be a good job: fresh air, physical exercise, not many people you have to talk to.’’
Many thanks to Penguin Random UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.