Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Unsettled Ground

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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.

The first thing to say is: I have rarely read a blurb that makes me less keen to read a novel than the blurb of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. I’m not sure exactly what it is about it that makes it so uninteresting to me (the twee names? Twins? Still living with their mother at 51?) but I knew that I wouldn’t want to read this book as soon as I found out what it was about. Obviously I have now read it (this isn’t some weird sort of anti-review) but I certainly wouldn’t have done so had it not been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. All this is to say that you should probably take my views with a pinch of salt, and if you are more attracted to this blurb than I am, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

Because the second thing to say is: Fuller can definitely write. I haven’t had the best luck with her books in the past (the only one I’ve enjoyed so far is Our Endless Numbered Days, which I thought was excellent, partly because it wasn’t so focused on the mundane), but I have never had a problem with her writing. Unfortunately, for me, even her  clear, clever prose couldn’t lift this story out of its doldrums. I recognised the social importance of the issues that she is tackling here and the suffering that results from being outside the system, unable to engage with the bureaucracy of claiming benefits or even paying in a cheque, especially when isolated in the countryside away from the kind of informal support networks that might be easier to access in a town or city. I could also see that the twins’ mother had deliberately forced them to become dependent on her, giving them little chance to learn these life skills.

However, I found both Jeanie and Julius so frustratingly helpless that it was impossible to sympathise with them. It makes sense that they don’t know how to engage with the welfare system, but why does Julius also have to get carsick whenever he gets in a vehicle, making it impossible for him to get much casual work? And while I understood Jeanie’s illiteracy and her fears of dealing with a bank, why could she not ask her casual employer to pay her in cash rather than giving her a cheque when she is desperate for money? I know the answer to this lies in the twins’ psychological state, but I wished Fuller hadn’t made them quite so trapped and hopeless.

My overall impression of this novel was of a powerful writer inexplicably deciding to concern themselves with an incredibly dull story; I’m not sure how Fuller managed to keep her own attention while writing this, and it definitely didn’t keep mine. 

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number nine. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby and No One Is Talking About This.

This is also #3 of my 10 Books of Summer.

17 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Unsettled Ground

  1. I started her book Bitter Orange at one point, but it didn’t grab me. I would need a big push to read this as well! Even though I usually end up liking books about twins (I’m reading a great one now, Wise Children by Angela Carter) I am also like…. twins, again??? Whenever I come across it!

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    • I’m not a fan of twins, not entirely sure why, they seem to turn up a lot in slightly twee ‘magical’ books like The Thirteenth Tale, or in bad horror.

      I also couldn’t finish Bitter Orange, but I would recommend her debut Our Endless Numbered Days if you want to try her writing, which, as I say, is very good.

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  2. I appreciate your honest review, and Jeanie and Julius do sound like very frustrating characters! I would read any book that has the word “twins” in a blurb because for me nothing is as exciting as a pair of twins in a book, but as I read this blurb further I realised that even I would not be able to stand it. I remember I gave Fuller’s Bitter Orange three and a half stars and largely because of her evocative prose and the atmosphere (and her overall general idea was interesting), but thought that the rest – the story itself, the characters, etc. were uneventful, underwhelming, generic, unoriginal. So, like you, I have no problems with her writing, which can be amazing, and I think its her story-telling which is lacking in something vital sometimes.

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    • Ha, I know a lot of people feel this way about twins but I have the opposite reaction – feel like a lot of books that are described as being about twins end up being a bit twee for me. No problem with characters who just happen to be twins! I completely agree about Bitter Orange.

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  3. I can see why this one annoyed you. I would definitely label it the least of her novels. My problem was with how exposition-heavy it was — lots of telling. You could see that she’d thought deeply about the implications of her characters’ issues, but it required a lot of spelling out for the reader, which was tedious.

    We had patchy wifi access in Northumberland, so when we got to our friends’ house in York at the end of the trip I logged on and immediately looked for news of the Women’s Prize winner … only to find there wasn’t one! My book club did The Vanishing Half while I was away and I was thoroughly expecting to learn that it had won. Irksome that they’ve delayed the announcement a second time. At least they’ve given you extra time to complete the set, though. Have you tried How the One-Armed Sister… yet?

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    • I know, I’m also annoyed that the announcement has been delayed! It meant I didn’t have to rush and read One-Armed Sister, though, so I haven’t got to that one yet. I’m pretty certain my preferred winner will be Transcendent Kingdom and I think it has the best chance of winning as well (with The Vanishing Half second most likely).

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  4. Couldn’t agree more! I found this book duller than dull even while I admired what Fuller was trying to do with it. It feels unkind in a way but I also found their helplessness grating.

    Also, after reading through these comments I suppose I am an outlier for being totally neutral on twin books, LOL. It’s not a selling point for me and it also doesn’t make me run for the hills. I get your point that they’re often twee though–but then they also have the potential to be something like Consent!

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    • Haha I just don’t think of Consent as ‘a twin book’, I guess. For me it would come under the category of ‘books about twins that don’t sell themselves as A Book About Twins’.

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  5. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2021: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House | Laura Tisdall

  6. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Final Thoughts | Laura Tisdall

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