By David Canfield
October 05, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT
Tin House Books

Bitter Orange


Here lies a very different summer of ‘69 — one set in rural England, where a love triangle unfurls amid unrelenting boredom and heat, only to hurtle toward tragedy.

Bitter Orange twists and bends, arouses and agitates, like a seductive nightmare. A demented memory play — Atonement by way of The Little Stranger — the novel moves between two timelines. In the present day, our unreliable narrator, Frances, is in confession on her deathbed, recounting to a vicar her stay at Lyntons, a decaying country house she’d been commissioned to assess for its new owner over a few months. Frances remembers herself at that time as dowdy, awkward, and dangerously repressed — suddenly thrust into the world after the death of her domineering mother, to whom she’d dedicated her life.

At Lyntons, a middle-aged Frances meets a vibrant young couple, Peter and Cara, who are staying in the room below her. She’s able to peek in on their lives due to the installation of a mysterious peephole in her bathroom and observes that Cara is unstable. Despite Frances’ initial awkwardness, the trio drink wine and smoke cigarettes late into the night before long. Peter and Cara privately confide in Frances as well, leaving her entranced and — as the secrets start adding up — unsettled. “Beautiful on the surface,” she describes the lovebirds. “But look a little closer and everything is decaying, rotting, falling apart.” (Cara, especially, spins increasingly far-fetched tales which take up paragraphs of the book, building like a novel of their own.) Through her twisty narration, Frances reveals a volatile side, too, which keeps Bitter Orange teetering on the brink of chaos: “I knew, of course, right from wrong. Don’t lie or steal…. Don’t speak unless spoken to, don’t look your mother in the eye.”

In her new novel, Claire Fuller (Swimming Lessons) enhances the mystery with luscious detail: sights of ghosts, smells of overripe fruit, echoes of Cara wailing. The plot’s movements are rendered secondary, at least in the early going, to the atmosphere, and it’s to the novel’s benefit; with sensations so alive on the page, you’re constantly kept on your toes, attuned to the mania. You’ll ask, beguiled: What’s really going on here? Bitter Orange foreshadows doom far too heavily, but it’s savage all the same — a promise that things can only get worse. B+

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