Contemporary Fiction Literary Fiction

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

5 July 2021
Unsettled Ground Book Cover Unsettled Ground
Claire Fuller
Fig Tree
25 March 2021

"Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance. But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother's secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake."--Publisher.

This novel based on the story of an impoverished rural family kept me reading. The writer’s skill at character development is masterful. The stories of each member of this family reveal themselves gradually and we discover strength in Jeanie, reportedly the least capable, great weakness in Justin, her twin, and a deep well of secrets their mother, Dot, kept throughout her life.

Jeanie and Justin are 51-year-old twins who still live with their mother, Dot, when she dies. This family lives in extreme poverty. Their only sources of income are Justin’s irregular work at odd jobs, and produce and eggs they sell to a local deli. Jeanie is not allowed to work by her mother who says her weak heart, a result of rheumatic fever as a child, makes working and most activity too dangerous. The father of the family died in an accident on the farm of the estate where they live. They continue to live their rent free in “compensation” for this death.

After Dot dies, the world she has created for her family starts to disintegrate. The twins discover that their mother has hidden her health concerns. She had in fact suffered several small strokes, and she was not taking her medication. This is only the first of a vast network of lies Dot has constructed. Through manipulation, Dot kept her children with her until a time when they seem to be too old to leave and start independent lives.

After the death of their mother, the situation of the twins spirals downward. Their descent illustrates that even in a society like England where social supports exist that we don’t have in the U.S., there are people who falls through the cracks. In this case, the twins are beyond middle-aged, undereducated, and living in a rural place with few opportunities. There are many people, both rural and urban, who undoubtedly struggle, and experience extreme deprivation even in a society that has national medicine, and social services. But Justine and Jeanie refuse help because their mother refused “charity” and help from most people and entities. This makes their situation even more desperate. Fortunately, there is one couple, friends of her mother, who force assistance on the pair.

I didn’t know where the story would take me, but it is so well structured, I was pulled in and through the novel, even as things became desperate. There are bad people who prey on the least fortunate, and Justin and Jeanie become targets. However, the skill of the writer kept me engaged to the very end. She made me care what happened to these two people at the end of their rope. There are villians, cowards, secret lovers, and a lot of gossip and storytelling.

This book is on the short list for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is an honor it deserves. I have only read half the list of six books – this book, Transcendent Kingdomand
The Vanishing Half. This has been my favorite so far.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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