Review: Unsettled Ground

TLDR: A short story about two siblings trying to cope with the sudden upheaval in their lives after their mother’s death. They are fifty-one year old twins still living with their mother in a rundown cottage; a lot is made of this, some of it by the twins themselves, some of it by other characters, but the most important thing is that it doesn’t matter at all. The pitiable state that the twins, Jeanie and Julius are presented in doesn’t mean we, as readers, are actually meant to pity them. Rather, it’s a quite blatant criticism of ‘society’ and the arbitrary rules we all have about what people’s lives should look like. This short book is a snapshot of Jeanie and Julius seeking a more settled ground, the people who help them, the people who hurt them, and the role we play, as outside observers.

Book: Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Synopsis: 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. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 304

Review

(Reading time: 2 mins)

When Dot Seeder dies from a stroke, her children Jeanie and Julius are left to pick up pieces they hadn’t even been aware of. The family of three have always lived together and relied on each other deeply ever since their father died when the twins were twelve. Jeanie has a heart condition that keeps her at home and Julius works odd jobs around the village and its surrounding farms. So much of this book is about what we owe to each other and in particular, the natural indebtedness family members hold towards each other.

Dot’s death is just the first step of the breakdown of these ties. Throughout the novel, Jeanie and Julius have to come up against struggles that have never become apparent until now: each of them wanting a life away from each other. This is compounded by secrets spilling out when Dot dies that centre largely around debt. The first fracture in their family widens as the twins discover secrets their mother has kept from them, which start with finances and continue into the depths of their childhood. Betrayal is a major theme, and the simple yet cutting style of writing makes each revelation hit harder.

One of the things I found interesting about this book is that consequences are never really delved into. As I said, it’s not a very long read, and so while the narrative does tie up a few of the problems it presents, the after-effects of events are left to linger. This is a parallel to the unexplained events of the twins’ childhoods. It is a very clear indication that although we are reading about their life, we don’t know the twins. We see them at a moment of great hardship, but only that moment.

Personal debts, owed bills, overdue rent – the inclusion of financial hardship into Jeanie and Julius’ story not only makes things harder for them, but shows how much easier things can be if they don’t exist. Not easy, but it is easy for things not to be a constant struggle. Jeanie and Julius live very much disconnected from much of society – Jeanie doesn’t have a phone, Julius can’t drive a car, neither of them regularly use the internet, travel, or form ties with other people. But how much of this is their fault, and how much can be easier if society is actively a helpful, rather than negligent set of rules and costs?

I’m not usually fond of stories that present themselves as morals, and this isn’t really, but you cannot help but find an argument in here anyway about society as an entire concept as something debilitating – unflinching against loss, blind to personal circumstance. It is not the boundary by which the twins should set their lives, but no matter how staunchly opposed Jeanie is to pity, to ‘handouts,’ to other people’s opinions of her, even she cannot escape it. Being unable to escape it, then, just repeats that age-old argument: we should create a world that fits us, not the other way around.

Similar to: It reminded me a lot of The Idea of Perfection, which has similar ideas about society and quiet nonconformity.

What else has the author written? She is the author of three other books, also critically-acclaimed: Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons, Our Endless Numbered Days.

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