Book Review: Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – an atmospheric and psychological story set in rural Wiltshire

I’ve had my eye out for this book ever since it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Unsettled Ground is the story of twins, Jeanie and Julius Seeder, who at fifty-one are still living at home with their mother, Dot, when she suddenly dies. All at once they have to figure out what to do, how to manage. Dot obviously took care of the family finances, but the cake tin that stored all their cash, from Julius’s odd jobbing and the women’s piecemeal market gardening, is virtually empty. Their electricity has been disconnected because of unpaid bills, then Jeanie discovers even more debts, to say nothing of the funeral costs.

Unfinished schooling, a basic, almost off-the-grid lifestyle and a lack of real-world experience mean the twins struggle to figure out how to make ends meet or get the help they need. Jeanie is barely literate, while Julius was traumatised when his father was killed in a farming accident, which means he can’t travel by car without motion sickness. Bridget, their mother’s old friend grudgingly drives Jeanie to appointments while pouring out unwanted advice. When their landlord’s wife issues an eviction notice unless arrears in rent of thousands of pounds are paid off, things are desperate indeed.

The plot pulls you in from the start as curve-ball after curve-ball are lobbed the twins’ way. You read on hoping they make a break from the past to find some happiness. Or, at 51, is it too late? Julius has always resented the need to stay, his mother, Dot, using Jeanie’s fragile health to keep him around. Dot had always felt that making music, gardening and living off the land were all that anybody needed, creating a small family sanctuary. But all it does is fill the twins with mistrust towards the agencies that might help them and the bullying they received at school casts a long shadow.

Told from Jeanie and Julius’s point of view, you have immense sympathy for these characters, while getting a taste of what it’s like to live in a small, insular community that isn’t always kind. And at the heart of it all are one or two family secrets that will overturn everyone’s assumptions. It’s an interesting psychological study of maternal love, guilt and fear inspired by ignorance. The setting of rural Wiltshire during a cold snap in spring is an evocative background – you get the sense of nature in all its glory, ready to invade, to rot and overrun.

It’s a bit like there are two sides to everything here – the good and the bad: the good side of mothering and the dark turn it can take; of neighbours, of nature and of love. It’s a powerful story that gives you lots to think about as well as a cracking good read, with more than a hint of the old adage: be careful what you wish for. The saving grace for the twins is music, peppering the story with old folk songs that Dot has passed on to her children. Claire Fuller used a playlist while writing the book which she describes here on her website. This is my first novel by Claire Fuller, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Unsettled Ground earns a four out of five from me.

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