Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, book review: 'Perfect heatwave reading'

A novel steeped in a particular English literary tradition, Bitter Orange echoes Penelope Lively’s Booker-winning Moon Tiger, Anita Brookner’s Look At Me, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 09 August 2018 12:54 BST

Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller’s heady, claustrophobic third novel, makes for perfect heatwave reading. Frances, the story’s narrator is an elderly woman. Lying in her sickbed, her mind is wandering: “My wasting disease has eaten away more than flesh: it has taken any memory of last week as well as the names and titles I was told about an hour ago,” she bemoans, “but it is kind enough to leave the summer of 1969 intact.”

This is the world to which we return. Even then, Frances wasn’t exactly in the first flush of youth. At 39 years old, she knows what she looks like—“a middle-aged woman rather thick around the middle, hair greying”—but in terms of life experience, she’s lived an unusually narrow and guileless life. Until her mother’s recent death, the two were inseparable; Frances had little contact with others. Even the most commonplace of human interactions are a struggle for her.

“It was so hard to get it right, the way other people had conversations, back and forth with no effort. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was done.” She’s missed out on things—friends, husbands, children: “I couldn’t imagine how they had come about.” As such, she’s an unreliable narrator of a very specific sort. Not, perhaps, deliberately misleading, but we’re aware that she’s an innocent, ill prepared for the cruelties and complexities of the big wide world.

Not that the setting of Bitter Orange could be described as such. Frances has come to Lyntons, a once grand but now ramshackle house in the countryside, to make a survey of the garden architecture for its new owner, an absentee American. Also in residence are a younger couple, Cara and Peter, “exotic and fantastic creature[s].” Frances is “transfixed” by them. In that dreamy, other-worldly kind of way that only happens during long hot summers when the usual rules somehow don’t apply — think of The Go-Between through to Atonement — Frances becomes entangled in Cara and Peter’s odd relationship, and the three drift together towards a violent, tragic dénouement. On the one hand, the trajectory seems impossibly inevitable; on the other, Fuller’s twists left me reeling.

Bitter Orange is a novel steeped in a particular English literary tradition. Frances’ deathbed recollections carry echoes of Penelope Lively’s Booker-winning Moon Tiger, while her attachment to Cara and Peter reminded me of another lonely Frances who falls in love with a young married couple: the heroine of Anita Brookner’s masterpiece, Look At Me. Then there’s Lyntons itself, where odd things happen that leave Frances uneasy: a strange noise, a blurred face at a window, dead birds appearing laid out like gifts, and some past resident creepily having removed each and every eye from the peacocks on the once-lush wallpaper of the drawing room. In my head the house took the shape of Hundreds Hall, the setting of Sarah Waters’ chilling 1940s-set ghost story, The Little Stranger. This, I could well imagine, would be the hall’s fate after another two decades of empty decay.

Bitter Orange is published by Fig Tree, £14.99

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in