Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange: A novel of memory and obsession

Bitter Orange, the fruit, is not what it seems; looks sweet and plump as an orange but it’s almost inedible and sour. Characters in Claire Fuller’s breathtakingly atmospheric and cleverly structured novel are in a way very similar to bitter oranges.

Mother always said that I was a girl who liked order, to know what would happen next.

says Frances, the heroine of Bitter Orange. It’s the summer of 1969. Dealing with the recent the loss of her mum, she travels to an estate in Hampshire; Lyntons, to create a report of the estate’s architecture. There she meets Peter and Cara, an attractive couple with a very noticeable peculiarity.

Frances Jellico, unmarried, unloved, gets obsessed with this husband and wife. She discovers a hole in the bathroom floor, a Judas hole, she prefers to call it, and watches them. But there is a mist of mystery around Peter and Cara. The reader will scrap the polish following the red flags, Peter and Cara are not what they claim to be.

I loved this novel. It’s one of my favourites of the year. The story stars with Frances as an old woman and she is looking back the summer of 1969 from what seems as a death bed. Fuller reveals very little of why and where Frances is and she structures the story in most skilful way, injecting parts with old Frances talking about the past to the main story, we learn what happened that summer and what is actually wrong with Peter and Cara consecutively without getting distracted and disconnected from the novel.

The atmospheric love triangle set in a old and rambling country house deeply affected me. Right after the moment Cara and Peter walks into the story, the reader is destined to realise there is a wrongness in them.

Peter, wearing his pyjamas, sat on the edge of the bath, which shone where the water had been drained, while Cara, in her underwear, bent over him. She pressed his cheek with one hand so that he tilted his head away from her, and with the other she scraped a razor along the side of his face. After every stroke she moved back to wave her hand in the soapy water that filled the sink. He was motionless, only his eyes following her while she worked. Each of her movements, the press of her fingers on the skin of his face, the upward slice of the blade, was precise and focused. I’d had no idea that the act of shaving could be so intimate.

The scenes between the two are cinematographic and Fuller takes the reader in Frances’s shoes, we feel how she ends up getting charmed by this superficially normal couple. Frances is the voyeur, watching, she is shy and innocent, dormant for Peter and Cara on the surface but also a tool to move their fault lines.

I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel; I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping; I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.

I loved the difference and the likeness between Cara and Frances; coming from different backgrounds, equally mad and shy to one another, they are both haunted by the past and memories.

There is a conversation between Peter and Frances:

Both of you are always looking backwards, when you should be looking forwards to the future.’‘But everything we have, everything we are, is created by the past,’ I said, surprised at his angry tone.

One of the scenes hinting that Peter is the one who wants to look ahead in this novel, and the females have clung on to past, they cannot leave the charm and curse of it- and the ending, Frances flooding with memories fits faultlessly with the novel’s premise.

The disturbing love triangle between Peter-Cara-Frances was beautifully done. Fuller was able to operate on all 3 characters and the reader will be absorbing their psychological state in the story. I was amazed by this as usually novels like this focus on one character and doesn’t invest in others.

The descriptions of the old house was absolutely spot on and I was transported to Lyntons during my read. I am curious if Fuller has been studying old houses, if yes, I would love to know which ones she used, to wrote those scenes in Lyntons.

Sometimes it’s better not to tell. Don’t you think? says Frances at one point in the novel, and maybe it’s the core of this story. I was amazed how easily Fuller constructed this puzzle of characters, memories, unfortunate events and mistakes together, forming a layered novel that puts a spell on the reader. It’s a shame Bitter Orange didn’t make it to Man Booker 2018 Long list. Definitely a novel that deserves many awards, as you rarely find a book that has both structure, plot and characterisation beautifully done at the same time.

5 stars from me.

You will like Ian Mcewan’s Atonement if you like this novel, or vice versa.


Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Fig Tree for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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