Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the story of 51-year-old twins Jeanie and Julius. They live in isolation in rural England with their mother, earning just enough to live on by selling produce from their modest garden and the odd jobs Julius takes on. When their mother dies, they are no longer able to sustain their already precarious lifestyle and lose their home and livelihood. For the first time in their lives, they are faced with change and the need to engage with technology. They don’t have a computer, a smart phone, or even a bank account.
As they learn to navigate a new world, Jeanie and Julius’s approaches are very different. Julius is more open and proactive, trying to find solutions to their predicaments, albeit not always successfully. Jeanie, however, has been so conditioned to isolation that she views the world with extreme distrust. She is not able to read or write – her mother thought that “an education for the kind of people they were – poor people, country people – would only steal her away from where she belonged – at home.” Now thrown into the world, with its bureaucracies at every turn, everyday tasks are a source of anxiety and embarrassment. When Jeanie finds a job, she ends up working for free because she doesn’t know how to cash a cheque. It’s difficult to image their situation improving, as both twins have been taught “not to take anything from anyone… especially if they were the government”. It’s gotta get worse before it gets better.
Fuller shows us their struggles through a microscope – this is the kind of novel that gives you a play by play of every word and gesture, an excellent technique to reveal character without overexplaining, done very well here. It also allows Fuller to convey just how physically dire the twins’ situation is. Even though Jeanie’s reactions to the blows she is dealt are dignified and resourceful, after a while it does feel a little like ‘misery lit’ – how many terrible things can happen to one person in only a few weeks? A lot in real life, but over a short novel, it starts feeling slightly manipulative towards the reader. The most moving moments are those where we see how leading such a reclusive life has impacted the twins’ self-worth, as well as their meditations on their own mortality: “what will they say about him when he’s gone?… Never did anything with his life. Never went anywhere”, Julius thinks.
We are never given an answer (thankfully) as to who is to blame for Jeanie and Julius’s situation. Society plays a part, but so do their parents – the extent of how their decisions impacted the twins becomes progressively clearer (and sadder) as the novel goes on.
Fuller’s writing is flawless in Unsettled Ground. There is not one word or sentence that is awkward or out of place. It’s very precise, and although a slow burn, the steaks are always high, no matter how small the interaction or event taking place. It’s full of meaningful detail and small tragedies. The rural setting could have gotten a little dull if that’s not your thing, but it’s so atmospheric that it reminded me of Victorian novels – fires being lit, sourcing sustenance from the land, the darkness, the cold.