Peggy Hillcoat is an average eight year old girl in 1976. She likes Sugar Puffs, climbing trees, listening to the Railway Children album and hanging out with her friend from school, Becky.
At home though, there is something not quite right going on.
Her mother is a celebrated German pianist, Ute Bischoff, who scandalously married her teenaged music page turner, when she was a few years older than him.
The excitement of being chased by photographers and journalists has made way for a family environment. Whilst Ute raises their daughter Peggy, as well as devoting her time to her beloved piano, James, her husband, has filled his time with other pursuits.
Work shy James finds himself in the midst of a group of survivalists who call themselves the Retreaters. Convinced that the A-Bomb is going to drop any day, they talk, drink and smoke the night away on a frequent basis, batting about ideas on how to survive.
Little Peggy, our narrator on this strange journey, is curious about what it all means. She’s only a little girl and the idea of the world being destroyed is not necessarily something she can understand. What she does understand is that she dearly wants to be around her parents, a normal need for a child. However, with Ute being aloof between the gaps when she isn’t playing, cooking and touring (an estrangement perhaps underlined by Peggy’s narration always calling her by her first name or ‘my mother’ rather than Mum or Mummy).
So when her Dad decides to build a bomb shelter in the basement of the family home, she joins in quite happily with his frequent ‘drills’, in which she has a small amount of time to collect a set list of belongings and make it down to the basement.
Little does she know that she is being groomed for what is to come.
Whilst Ute is touring and after an argument with one of his Retreater friends, James abruptly leaves the house and takes Peggy with him. They trek through Europe to Germany where they walk off the beaten track for a long while, in search of die Hütte.
James was told about die Hütte from one of the Retreaters, who made it out to be a snug, plentifully stocked little cabin in the woods. When they finally arrive, it is anything but.
By telling little Peggy that the world has ended and that beyond their forest home there is literally nothing, he begins erecting the bars of her mental cage. He takes advantage of the unconditional love and trust a child invests unquestionably in their parents, for his own gain and gratification.
James veers towards psychosis throughout the book, in increasing and ultimately sickening fashion.
Through the eyes of a child though, he is still her beloved Papa.
James not only sets the boundaries of her world, but also rewrites her identity by referring to her as ‘Punzel’ instead of calling her Peggy.
The novel is a slow burner all the way through. It was a trudge to get from one chapter to another. The repetition and monotony of life in this small new world is echoed by the repetition of Peggy’s words, descriptions, life. Her life has been narrowed down to a single point and all of her routines become ingrained to both reader and narrator.
Peggy strives though to make some sense of her life in die Hütte. She builds a nest in the forest as a means to escape her father. She plays piano every day on a mock up piano her father made that makes no sound. Instead of learning at school, Peggy learns the trees, the animals and the mountain.
There is a jarring sensation knowing that Peggy is also learning that survival means to kill. Little girls would possibly be more inclined to keep rabbits and fluffy animals as pets, but Peggy learns to kill and gut them and becomes quite efficient. This theft of her innocence by her father is a dark harbinger of other ways in which he robs her innocence.
As we see the life of a little girl as she adapts to this new and harsh environment, we are also fast forwarded nine years to a seventeen year old Peggy who is back in London, struggling to adapt to her old life. We learn she has a brother, that Ute never stopped hoping for her daughters return and that life carried on without her.
Peggy’s sense of environment is engrossing. Standing on a hard road surface after years of grass and muck is a strange sensation.
The woman that Peggy has become relies solely on the knowledge and experience of the little girl she used to be. She has to reach back through the fog of the last nine years and grab hold of what she remembers in order to make sense of the world.
Peggy is a character that one can sympathize with. She was kidnapped – robbed of the basic need to simply grow up at home and develop and be educated like normal children. It doesn’t matter how reliable a narrator she ultimately seems, the basic information of the situation is enough to absolve her of anything.
She even writes a list of the things she has missed out on and they are childlike, simple things: Butter and Cheddar Cheese, salt, toothpaste, baths, trifle and nine Christmas dinners. It is certainly heart-wrenching to read that list. Nothing fancy, nothing mega – just the silent wish list of a little girl, lost in the woods with a crazed father who spends nine years pretending he ‘saved her’.
As the novel closes with a few things up in the air – where does Ute, Peggy and her brother Oskar go from there? – you get a sense that there is a united front. Ute gives up a secret of hers to her children and we learn another big secret about Peggy. After this, we get a sense that Ute will be the force that will save her children in a way James never could – through love, through determination, through nurturing.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Hillcoat family, but I hope they all find some peace at last.
Claire Fuller’s debut novel is a solid piece of writing and a strong debut.
For me though, it is not a book I would return to now I’ve finished it and I am not certain what sort of reader I would recommend it to. Either way, a good novel and a story I am glad to have read.