One Fell Swoop & Claire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground”

Our book club met for the first time in a year. We discussed Claire Fuller’s superb novel, Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Perhaps Fuller will win: her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. Fuller’s prose is hypnotic and sometimes devastating. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the simplest actions in society.

The novel is so resonant that the group discussed a real-life problem, and thus broke all the rules of etiquette in one fell swoop.

“Lynn is on GoFundMe,” Sue said. “She needs a hot water heater.”

In a dim corner of my mind, I had realized Lynn might face poverty, but this flash of insight rarely visited. Lynn was Emily Dickinson-ish, a sweet woman who stayed home and wrote poetry. She was one of those intelligent but withdrawn people who cannot quite cope, so she lived with her parents. When they died, things must have been very hard for her. She was so secure she never wanted to leave – and so she never did.

Tears were in Sue’s eyes, Lori whispered,”Shit,” Janet distributed Kleenex, I blew my nose, and Megan demanded, “How did this happen?”

“I heard she wasn’t doing well, so I cyberstalked her,” Sue admitted.
We knew poverty could happen – and yet it is dizzyingly unreal. Lynn had become convinced that we all looked down on her, and hung up when we called. Only Sue broke through that barrier.

We decided to give some money, whatever we can.

We did not dwell on Lynn’s plight after we formed our plan of action, and so we did enjoy our book discussion. Illiteracy is Jeanie’s biggest problem, one that allows others to take advantage of her. Jeanie cannot read, and when she finds a job as a part-time gardener the checks pile up, because she does not know how to cash them. Julius does odd jobs for cash, but spends most of it at the pub.

But savvy Jeanie must solve their problems. She is appalled when Julius decides they should live in a dumpy trailer in a no man’s land. Hooligans stalk and victimize the twins in the woods. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as smart Jeanie learns how to navigate society, despite her learning disability.

This resonant novel will make you think about poverty and homelessness, you will find hope through Jeanie’s quick learning, and you will race through the well-written pages.

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