Big house darkness and drama in Claire Fuller’s new novel

With nods to her Irish roots, ‘Bitter Orange’ reads like an assured, old-school classic

Claire Fuller: ‘I have to start with a person and a location and then I let the character walk around’

Claire Fuller: ‘I have to start with a person and a location and then I let the character walk around’

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The dedication in Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller’s third novel, reads as follows:

“In memory of
Joyce Grubb (9 August 1910 to 4 July 2004)
and Joyce Grubb (8 April 1907 to 26 June 1982)”

The first Joyce Grubb is Fuller’s paternal grandmother and, extraordinarily, the second is her husband’s maternal grandmother who shared the same maiden name. The couple found this out after they’d been dating for around two weeks and “For a fraction of a second, we thought it was the same woman,” says Fuller, “but it wasn’t. We did find out that seven or eight generations ago we share a common Irish ancestor. So, my husband and I are vaguely related but then probably so are lots of people that many generations back.”

Fuller’s father had always talked about their Irish connection; the family ran flour mills in Clonmel but went up in the world when they married into the Alcock’s who owned Wilton Castle in Wexford. Fuller went to see it in 1992, when it was still just a ruin (burnt down by the rebels in 1923). It has since been partly restored and is used as a wedding venue. Fuller suspects the family history there is one of absentee landlords and, I think, prefers to remain in the dark about that story.

Our main character and narrator is frumpy Frances who is recounting the story of this devastating summer from a future where she is, perhaps, suffering from dementia

The name of the Irish house in Fuller’s new novel, Bitter Orange, is Killaspy, and is taken from the name of her ancestor’s estate. The novel’s Irish character Cara, grows up there, in Kilkenny, with her overbearing mother. Like many Irish small-town dreamers Cara is drawn into fantasy and is desperate to escape, to be special. She feels the lure of the big city, by travel, where you can become someone completely different. Cara runs away to Dublin and takes on a new identity, pretending she’s Italian. “She invents whatever story suits her at the time,” says Fuller. “She chooses Italy because the father she’s never met had gone there and it has stuck in her head from childhood. It becomes part of the fantasy life she builds. Italy is sunny, beautiful, and glamorous, everything that where she’s from, isn’t.”

Big house story

There are two houses in the novel and both are in a state of decay. The second is the English country estate, Lynton’s, where most of the action takes place. “I’ve always wanted to write a ‘big house’ story, so many of my favourite books are set in them,” Fuller says and she clearly delights in the atmospheric tropes they conjure – noises in the night, secret rooms, and ghostly faces at the window to name a few.

Cara’s sort-of husband, Peter, has been sent by the new owner of Lynton’s to value it. Unfortunately, the couple are more interested in playing out their relationship’s high dramas and stripping the place of anything they can find; from an overlooked wine cellar to the antiques found hidden in a secret room. Our main character and narrator is frumpy Frances who is recounting the story of this devastating summer from a future where she is, perhaps, suffering from dementia.

It is beautiful, damaged Cara who demands our attention and she, in turn, recounts her own twisty, ever-changing story to Frances. Cara tells of leaving Ireland, the mystery surrounding her pregnancy and the resulting “missing” child. As Frances is losing her grip on the present, Cara is losing her grip on reality in our narrated past.

The novel moves between Ireland and England and through three time periods – it’s hard to believe Fuller doesn’t plan her books. She seems to have fun with the twisty plot, creaky mansions and moments of Gothic, horror-like excess (take Cara’s violent vomiting when she receives communion). Bitter Orange reads like an assured, old-school, du Maurieresque classic. It’s an atmospheric page-turner that speeds us towards a bloody climax of shocks and surprises, and where boring old Frances reveals dark secrets of her own.

Late start, early success

Fuller came to writing relatively late, at 40, starting with short stories, reading them out at a slam in her local library in Winchester.

“I hadn’t done any creative writing since school, but it seemed to go well so I did a creative writing MA and wrote my first novel on that course.”

That novel was Our Endless Numbered Days. Set in 1976, it’s a story about Peggy, who, at age eight, is taken to a European forest by her father and isn’t seen again for another nine years. The book was snapped up by an agent, went to auction, became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and won the Desmond Elliot Prize for debut novels.

“I’m always slightly embarrassed telling that story, as it was so easy for me. I know how difficult it can be for writers to get published, so what happened was all the more incredible. I had worked in marketing for 23 years and hadn’t done any creative writing or public speaking and suddenly I was thrust into the publishing world and had to get used to speaking and reading in front of an audience. I was absolutely terrified at my first literary event.”

I let the character walk around. I get into their head. I learn the time and date, the era, that way

Fuller was able to give up her job and write full-time. It was a huge risk but she wanted to grab her chance with both hands and finish her second novel, Swimming Lessons. She learned that, in publishing, it’s all about the debut, the new discovery, and it was a very different experience to the first time around. “There was less fanfare but the book was well reviewed and even sold much better in America than the first.”

Fuller doesn’t plan her novels and has no idea how they are going to end, so where does that initial spark come from?

“The inspiration was different for all three books,” she says, “but I write a lot of flash fiction, and this often starts me off. A few years ago I saw a photo of an ornate ceiling rose and I wrote a 100-word story about a man spying on a woman through a hole in a ceiling rose. I thought, ‘what if it was the other way around, and a woman was spying on a man?’ and Bitter Orange was born. I have to start with a person and a location,” she says, “and then I let the character walk around. I get into their head. I learn the time and date, the era, that way. Then other characters come and join them. It gets so I know these characters so well they start doing things of their accord. Sometimes there are dead ends and I have to go back and edit, go back to a kernel I know is right.”

So what is she working on now? As it happens, she’s just hit one of those dead ends on book four.

“I got to 16,000 words and realised it wasn’t right and had to scrap most of it. So now I’ve only got 2,000 words. I’m just writing to see where it goes.”

Bitter Orange is published by Penguin

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