The country house has a rich history in the modern novel, whether it be Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, L.P. Hartley, Ian McEwan or any others of a long list. Add in a lazy hot summer and the setting alone fizzes with intrigue and hidden menace.
Claire Fuller is very good indeed on the details of her chosen country house, Lyntons, and we are only a few pages into Bitter Orange before mention of a “judas hole” alerts us to the impending menace: “I am kneeling on the bare boards of my attic bathroom at Lyntons, one eye pressed to the lens that sticks up from the floor. … In the room below a body lies in the pinking bathwater, the open eyes staring up at me for too long.”
At the novel’s opening, Frances recalls from her “end-of-life” bed how, as a 39-year-old, she went to Lyntons to compile an inventory of the garden furniture and architecture.
Assigned an attic bedroom she rips up the ancient and smelly adjoining bathroom carpet only to discover “a short telescope” positioned directly above the bath below. Through it she watches Cara and Peter, the couple whose parallel task is to inventory the house. They are everything that Frances is not – bohemian, unbuttoned, careless.
Fuller allows the details to speak eloquently for themselves: “Cara and I sunning ourselves at the end of the jetty on the lake at Lyntons. She is in a bikini – I’d never seen that much of someone else’s skin all at once – and me daring to lift my woollen skirt above my knees”.
The repressed and virginal Frances is at first surprised that Cara and Peter seem to want to spend time with her.
They invite her down to their more spacious apartment for wine and food, they drink too much, Cara takes Frances into her confidence, telling her tales of an Irish background, her love for all things Italian, the birth and death of her child. But the stories are contradictory and Peter warns Frances that Cara is a great teller of tales.
In short, Cara is an unreliable narrator and so, one suspects, is Frances. The opportunities for entanglement are endless.
The real star of Bitter Orange is Lyntons. It has been bought by an American, Mr Liebermann, who seems to have little idea of what he has acquired.
According to Peter, he has “no idea what’s in the house and what isn’t. He sent me an inventory but nothing matches.”
As far as Peter and Cara are concerned, his ignorance means that they can help themselves to whatever they find in the wine cellar and pillage the museum for artefacts to sell. Frances is both appalled and liberated by their theft and profligacy.
Having opted for the rambling country house setting, Fuller cannot resist playing up its decay and spookiness.
Frances hears noises in her rooms, smells decomposition under the bath, sees faces at the window and finds dead birds in her attic bedroom. These are staples of the genre since the early 19th century passion for the Gothic novel and Fuller has every intention of playing them to the full. She does it very well, although I was never as spooked as I suspect she would wish.
It is fairly obvious from early on in Bitter Orange that all is not going to end well, and when Frances begins to imagine that Peter loves her, and she him, things take a predictable downturn for the worse.
Frances “loosens up” (literally – she begins the novel in her mother’s constricting underwear) but the lifestyle she begins to enjoy that summer at Lyntons is at such severe odds with her upbringing that she is never entirely comfortable with it. As she herself acknowledges, “I knew, of course, right from wrong, don’t lie or steal” So there is tension within her, tension with Cara, tension with Peter and tension between Cara and Peter – multiple tensions that can only erupt in dramatic manner.
Author: Claire Fuller
Publisher: Fig Tree/Penguin, contemporary fiction