Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021, Unsettled Ground tells the heartrending story of two adult twins, fifty-one-year-old Jeanie and Julius Seeder, sheltered from the modern world by their mother, Dot, in their run-down cottage in Wiltshire.
The twins have lived at home with Dot their whole lives. Julius picks up casual jobs where he can while Jeanie supports her mother, helping to tend the vegetables the family sell to a local deli and B&B. Their world is small and fragile, their existence hand-to-mouth – living rent-free in a dilapidated cottage, an undocumented arrangement dating back to the death of the twins’ father, Frank, some thirty-seven years earlier. In the absence of any technology or external influences, the family gain comfort from simple homely rituals, mostly playing folk songs together, passed down through the generations.
When Dot dies of a stroke at the beginning of the novel, the twins’ lives are thrown into turmoil as everything the Seeders previously understood about their family history begins to unravel. Caroline Rawson – married to the farmer on whose land the Seeders’ cottage is situated – claims that Dot owed her husband £2,000 in rent, a debt that the twins struggle to understand given the nature of Dot’s agreement with Rawson. The circumstances surrounding Frank Seeder’s death are alluded to, suggesting an element of guilt on Rawson’s part, hence the longstanding rent-free arrangement. But if that was indeed the case, why is Caroline Rawson suddenly demanding payments?
They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer. (p. 92)
Other debts and family secrets gradually come to light, compounding the twins’ ability to hold onto the cottage in the face of the Rawsons’ hostility. With barely enough money to buy food, let alone to make a dent in Dot’s outstanding debts, Jeanie and Julius must face the possibility of eviction – all at a time when they are still grieving for their mother. In short, they can’t even afford a basic funeral for Dot – something they eventually deal with in the only way possible while batting away awkward questions about the secluded service and wake.
The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Jeanie, a proud, vulnerable, stubborn woman who gradually reveals her resilience over the course of the book. With great sensitivity and compassion, Fuller shows us just how challenging it is for someone like Jeanie to navigate the modern world with its reliance on formal processes and online technology. Largely due to a severe bout of rheumatic fever during her childhood, Jeanie cannot read and write – limitations she tries to keep hidden from the few people she comes into contact with.
Occasionally Jeanie sees these problems as her own failings and is ashamed, but most of the time she is cross that the world is designed for people who can read and write with ease. (p. 58)
It is an illness Jeanie remains wary of to the current day, largely due to Dot’s warnings about the frailty of her daughter’s heart, thereby imposing restrictions on Jeanie’s physical capabilities.
The lack of a bank account is another obstacle for the Seeders, something Jeanie discovers when she lands a job tending a local resident’s garden two afternoons a week. When her first payment is handed over as a cheque, Jeanine is too embarrassed to ask for cash, thereby rendering her work useless, at least as a means of gaining money. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction for Jeanie, a sign of growing independence, which Fuller teases out beautifully during the book.
She is excited, amazed at what she has managed to do so easily, and although she knows that what she will be earning won’t touch their debts, the idea of doing work other than looking after her own house and garden makes her feel like something inside her – as tiny as an onion seed – is splitting open, ready to send out its shoot. (p. 107)
While the novel is relatively bleak in tone, it is not without occasional moments of brightness. As Dot’s death forces the twins to interact with the outside world in various unfamiliar ways, there is support from Dot’s friend, Bridget, and her husband, Stu. Bridget in particular tries to help Jeanie as best she can while keeping her counsel on Dot’s history and the version of events passed down to the twins. There is genuine heartbreak in this novel, particularly when unscrupulous bullies seize on the twins’ vulnerabilities and misfortunes, just at their lowest point. Ultimately though, it is a story of resilience, how sometimes we have to come to terms with darkness in our family history to forgive and move forward.
In Jeanie and Julius, Fuller has created two highly distinctive, richly-layered characters that feel fully painted on the page. The Seeders are marginalised – underdogs the reader will likely invest in, sensitively conveyed with compassion despite their undoubted failings. (There are times in this novel when you’ll probably want to give each twin a good shake or talking to, purely for their own good, but you know they’ll need to learn things the hard way to really pull through.) The supporting players are excellent too, especially Bridget and her wayward son, Nathan, who gets drawn into the eviction proceedings, much to his parents’ disgust.
Fuller writes beautifully about the twins’ environment, capturing a feel for the landscape and the rhythms of rural life.
The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago. (p. 1)
Her eye for detail is equally impressive, highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the world the twins inhabit – the image of a piano lying on its side in the middle of a spinney will likely linger and endure.
This is a poignant, highly distinctive story of two outsiders living on the fringes of society. A tender, achingly sad novel with glimmers of hope for a brighter future, especially towards the end.
Unsettled Ground is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
This is the Claire Fuller of “Our Endless Numbered Days”? I was very impressed by that even though it was so harrowing. This one sounds a bit more emotionally manageable!
Yes, it is. This was my first, so I can’t say how it compares to Our Endless Numbered Days, but I might well try it at some point. She can certainly write!
I’m a great fan of Claire Fuller’s fiction which seems to go from strength to strength. As you say, her characterisation is both strong and compassionate. I particularly liked her clear-eyed portrayal of rural poverty which reminded me of Amanda Craig’s recent novels.
Ah, yes. I recall seeing positive reviews for Craig’s Lie of the Land a few years ago. Thanks for the reminder, Susan – I might take another look at that.
I keep meaning to read Fuller, lovely review Jacqui, this sounds really good.
Yes, it’s very well-written. I’d recommend it, as long as you’re prepared for some heartache along the way.
I love the sound of this, it’s been on my radar for a while, but I think I might have to buy a kindle copy. The characters here sound brilliantly drawn, their stories are obviously poignant with the portrayal of rural poverty and vulnerability.
Definitely a book I would recommend to you, Ali. I think you’d love the twins, and their stories are absorbing and really well paced. It’s frightening to think how people like Jeanie and Julius can just slip through the cracks like this, especially with the drive to do everything online.
Fine review–I especially like the quotes you’ve chosen. I loved this book–I ached for Jeannie.
Thank you. I’m glad you liked it too. It’s a bit of a hearbreaker, for sure…
Great review Jacqui – I have of course seen mention of the book but didn’t really know what it was about, and it does sound brilliantly done. That link between twins, of course, and the inability to interact with the modern world (which I often think our pensioners must have to deal with) – all unsettling elements and a very clever way of portraying what it’s like when you’re off grid and out of the loop. Though the realist in me wonders why adult social services weren’t involved!!
Yes, I guess in an ideal world the state support networks would be there for the twins, but they’re just not in the social security systems in any shape or form. Also, Jeanie is incredibly proud and doesn’t want to feel reliant on (what she would perceive to be) a form of charity or handouts. At one point, during a sort-out of Dot’s old clothes, Jeanie finds a £20 note folded up in a coat pocket. But later, she realises that Bridget had put it there, knowing that Jeanie would likely find it before the clothes go off to the charity shop. So rather than accepting the £20 note (which she desperately needs for food), Jeanie slips it back into Bridget’s purse during a quiet moment. She’s her own worst enemy at times, but it all comes across as feeling pretty believable and relatable…
This sounds just wonderful Jacqui. I enjoyed Our Endless Numbered Days, but perhaps not as much as many reviews I read. I remember thinking I’d be interested to see what she did next but then I lost track. This sounds a perfect opportunity to catch up with Claire Fuller again!
Our Endless Numbered Days is probably the one I’ve heard most about in the past, but something about the premise of Unsettled Ground really drew me in. It’s really well written, and I can see why it’s been popular with various book prize committees and book groups etc. You’d find it interesting, I think!
This is an author I keep missing, I came close to reading Bitter Orange and can’t remember why I didn’t, I think I had it out from the library. This one does sound quite bleak and gothic, just up my alley!
Yes, it’s definitely bleak, and your heart will likely ache for Jeanie, but there are some glimmers of hope at the end – enough to lift it and restore a little faith in human nature. :)
From your review this book sounds like a powerful and affecting portrayal of not only of an individual family, but of a group of people who are caught by various circumstances outside of a more unforgiving society. It must be a very moving reading experience.
Yes, absolutely. It’s a good one for discussion groups, I think, for exactly the reasons you’ve pinpointed. I couldn’t help but think of a friend’s brother, who has similar difficulties in navigating our process-driven modern world…
What a beautiful review. I do worry about falling through the cracks myself as I get older so might not be the one for me – or might be best to read it now! Not sure!
Thanks, Liz. No, probably not for you as there’s quite a lot of heartache in this one, albeit with some glimmers of brightness towards the end. :)
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