Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
Categories: Literary Fiction
First Publication Date: January 28th 2021
Synopsis: What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back?
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. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.
But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. At risk of losing everything, Jeanie and her brother must fight to survive in an increasingly dangerous world as their mother’s secrets unfold, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.
I first picked this up because it was longlisted on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, although it’s been on my radar for a while. I think I would have read this eventually anyway, because that cover and the synopsis really call to me – I am so partial towards dark literary fiction. I liked but did not love Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, so my expectations were a bit tamed for Unsettled Ground. I expected this to be a literary thriller or a mystery, which it technically is, but I would say you should not pick it up for the mystery/thriller aspect, or you will be disappointed. The plot twists are not exactly twists (at least I saw them coming from the beginning), Unsettled Ground is rather more about the two siblings, their codependency towards another and their strange relationship with their mother, who kept so many secrets from them and encouraged them to be apart from society. I had hoped this would examine the contrasts of the modern world vs the lack of access to technology and information by the poorer classes. Or perhaps a bureaucracy vs man situation, like The Process by Franz Kafka. It was not exactly either of those things, but a little bit of both, as well.
What Claire Fuller does excel on is atmosphere: the entire book feels claustrophobic, dark and confusing, with a constant feeling of impending doom and impotence (hence my comparison to The Process). If you enjoy reading a book that will give you such feelings and put you in the minds of the characters, doubts, flaws and all, you might just love this. Personally, I found that the plot and the characters did not fulfill the interesting premise. I was most of the time frustrated with both Julius and Jeanie (their names repeated so many times that it drove me a bit crazy), cringing at their complete lack of real-world skills and savviness. As mentioned before, I think this is the point of the story.
However, it still felt to me like this novel did not quite fulfill its potential and I was a bit disappointed with it. What cemented it as a 3-star read was the ending; I will not go into detail in this paragraph (see the spoiler section below if you want to know more details). While I thought this novel had very interesting topics touched upon and a wonderfully executed atmosphere, I had hoped for something more.
Trigger Warnings: Death of a loved one, bullying.
As mentioned above, the ending ruined this book’s chance to get a 4-star rating from me. The shooting of Julius, the brother who was starting to move on from his codependent relationship with Jeanie, rendered him entirely dependent on her, in a way that made me feel a bit like a revenge-of-the-powers-that-be situation. The last chapter felt like a happy ending: Jeanie is the owner of the cottage now, her brother will never leave her (or try to) again, and there are no more money problems. But for Julius, the “bad” twin who tried to (gasp) move on, this is a punishment. He has always had his strength and some independence, and now his body is weaker and he’s entirely dependent on his sister. It would be a horrifying and satisfying ending if it had gone all the way to horror and revealed Jeanie to be manipulative and evil, for example, if she had been responsible for her father’s death or her brother’s shooting somehow. But no. She has never had much fire in her, and it simply continues to be so at the end, minus the threat of her brother leaving. All of this I am complaining about, of course, just reveals my preference for horror and horror-adjacent fiction. Clearly the author wanted to do something different with this novel and it did not correspond to how I would have preferred it to be; it all comes down to personal preference, as most things do when it comes to books!